According to the Lunar calendar, the new year starts on January 25 this year. For our culture, the Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year) is the most important celebration of the year. As my family begins to prepare to usher in the Year of the Rat (dad started making restaurant reservations a month in advance) there are a few customs and traditions we follow. While dad says we can ease up a bit, the core traditions remain the same. And no surprises, everything we do, eat, and give are symbolic. While many asian cultures celebrate, here are some traditions we follow for Chinese New Year…


In weeks, and days, prior to moving into new year we clean, clean, and clean. Consider it like the western world’s spring cleaning. It’s a thorough clean that is meant to sweep out any negativity and bad spirits. On New Year’s Eve we open up the windows to let them out and welcome in fresh, new spirits into the home. It’s important to open all windows so the air can flow. However, do NOT clean on New Year’s Day as then you’ll be essentially sweeping out the good vibes. Do not wash clothes. Definitely do NOT wash OR cut your hair on this day either. You’ll be washing away any good luck that comes your way.


We always wear something new to symbolize a fresh start on New Year’s Day. Red and Gold colours are preferred as they symbolize happiness and good luck, but anything new today is good. If anything, it’s a good excuse to buy yourself a little something.  Just don’t wear black or white – colours symbolic of death and considered unlucky.


Chinese New Year is a time for family and friends. Gifts are all symbolic and important to know what is appropriate for New Year’s. Extravagant gifts are not tradition but more of a modern day custom and increasing in popularity. Material items are not common except sometimes for new items of clothing traditionally  for elderly and children out of necessity – scarves, sweaters for good health.

Most common gifts for the New Year:

Hong Bao or Lai See: Two red envelopes are traditionally given to children and to seniors that are family and close friends. Traditionally given in a pair. Inside we include cash preferably in even amounts combined (e.g. 8, 10, 20, 80, 100..but nothing in 4s as the number itself phonetically sounds out as death) and dependant on your income. Parents and grandparents will continue to give to their children and grandchildren. It’s also customary to give to your parents/grandparents. The red envelopes that can be found in a Chinese book store, or decor store, come in a wide variety of designs from traditional flowers to cute Hello Kitty. If you’re not sure, shop keepers are happy to help identify which ones are appropriate for the occasion. Today, you may also come across chocolate coins in red packets given from a parent in your child’s classroom or at a mall that’s celebrating the occasion. These are given simply as a nice gesture and awareness of the celebration. FYI, children do not give out the red envelopes but receive them. And how you give and receive is always with two hands with the wishes of good health and prosperity for the coming year. Also, it’s considered impolite to open red envelopes immediately especially in front of the person who gifts them. A courteous thank you and return of wishes of good health, happiness and prosperity is custom.

Who else receives them? It’s not uncommon to see people giving them to servers at restaurants if they are regulars or tips are a bit more generous.

Oranges: and in particular, tangerine or mandarin oranges with stems and leaves intact, are a great gift when visiting relatives and friends. Oranges symbolize fruitful wealth. These are usually not eaten but put on display inside the home as well.

Lucky Bamboo is an ideal gift for the New Year. Bamboo in the home brings harmony into the home according to feng shui masters. You’ll often find stems intertwined but be there shouldn’t be four stems otherwise you’re cancelling out your luck. Eight stalks represent wealth.

Candies & Sweets: obviously represent sweetness and giving to hosts who receive you in their home during the festive season is to wish them a happy life. In recent years, the little red and gold sealed creamy strawberry candies (aka Lai See Tong) have become a go-to even though they aren’t the greatest for your teeth! You’ll also find individually wrapped nougat and chocolate coins. But traditional candy trays also include red dates, haw candies, roasted seeds, and dried fruit. You can find these prepackaged and ready to gift at the Chinese grocery stores. Today, it’s also acceptable to give sweets like small cakes, macarons, and chocolates. From my experience, the older generations prefer traditional.


Our New Year’s lasts for 15 days and it involves gathering of family and friends over food. Lots of it. Feasting happens at home as well as out at restaurants. There are some foods that are eaten on certain days but that’s a whole other post. Here are just a few common foods…

Dumplings are traditions for many families. Dumplings resemble ingots (shaped like centuries-old Chinese currency) and we gather to make and eat them in abundance. Today, if you don’t have time to make them, you can also get them from dumpling houses or frozen varieties at the grocer’s. We eat them for good luck and prosperity.

Steamed Rice and Glutinous Cakes (nien-gao) can be found in grocery stores and higher-end Chinese restaurants available for purchase. These larger cakes are either sweet or savoury. The name phonetically sounds something like a better, or higher, year. So gifting these, and eating them, is all about wishing for good year ahead. More success in school and business.

Longevity Noodles are enjoyed and serve as a symbol for long life. They are enjoyed in a variety of ways but NEVER cut them.

Rice balls (tong yuan) are small white gluten balls that are sweetened. They symbolize happiness and reunion with family and friends.


Chinese New Year celebrations happen in many major cities in North America. In Toronto, you can join in the celebrations in many places. **BTW if you’re reading this past the date of publishing please check individual restaurants and venues for current festivities and offerings! …

Shangri-La Hotel Toronto hosts its annual Chinese New Year Afternoon Tea for a few weeks – reserve for January 25 as they will have a traditional Lion Dance performance. A delightful upscale Dim Sum brunch is also offered during the New Year season at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Bosk.

Scarborough Town Centre commences Chinese New Year celebrations on Saturday, January 18 with Lion Dance and ceremony. There will be other performances throughout the day. Visit the Centre Court throughout the week and walk through their beautiful Chinese Lantern walkways and make a wish on the Wishing Wall.

#CNYbyBV at Bayview Village Shopping Centre has lots planned for New Year’s including a live artist installation by local collective BlincStudios (January 19 to 24) with the final unveiling on January 25. Post a selfie on Instagram for a chance to win a 6-month subscription of flowers from Tonic Blooms. Complimentary set of BV Pink Packets available at the Concierge desk are being handed out while supplies last. And if you spend more than $500 in one day (up to February 8) at the mall you’ll receive a complimentary mani at the Hammam Spa by Cela.

Toronto Chinatown (Spadina & Dundas) celebrates Chinese New Year on January 25 and 26 with traditional Lion Dances throughout the days. Indoor festivities happen at Dragon City Mall.

Lunar Fest at the Living Arts Centre Mississauga on February 1 and at the Varley Museum Markham on February 2:  the Lunar New Year is celebrated in several Asian countries (Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean). This festival explores the many different traditions. Check out  “Musical Banquet: A Feast of Sumptuous Classical Music”, activities and games for kids, and learn more about the arts and cultures of these countries during this festive time of year.

First Markham Place Chinese New Year Celebrations: Festivities have already begun here but the real celebrations happening with the New Year’s Eve countdown on Friday, January 24 at 10 pm. Followed by Several dates of Lion dances and other demonstrations.

Pacific Mall Chinese New Year Extravaganza “Glitter”: Join in all the festivities on January 25 with guest entertainer Calvin Chan, Hong Kong TVB artist.

Markville Shopping Centre Celebrates The Year of the Rat on January 25 with an eye-catching lantern display, traditional Lion Dance, fortune teller,  a modern “street dance”,  photo opps with the God of Fortune.

Also, keep your eyes open for Lion Dances on weekends at individual retailers at Yorkdale Shopping Centre including Holt Renfrew.

For the youngsters, celebrate the Year of the Rat on February 1st (3pm to 5 pm) at the annual Panda Mandarin Chinese New Year Children’s Fun Fair. This uptown f family-friendly event created by Panda Mandarin Language School will be located at the Fairlawn United Church & Community Centre (Yonge & Fairlawn).  Join in traditional arts and crafts, exciting games, demonstrations and performances including a Lion Dance. Ticketed event.

Gong Hei Fat Choy!