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Chinese New Year traditions and superstitions

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It’s that time of year again—of lion dances, red envelopes with money, bushes with little oranges, and red lanterns decorating homes and restaurants. It’s the Lunar or Chinese New Year!

It’s an exciting time because it’s believed to be the start of a change in fortune for everyone. People are curious about what kind of year is promised to different astrological signs and what you can do to augment the good or counter the bad. There are also rituals to ensure good luck that not only those of Chinese heritage follow. What is the lure of these superstitions and why are most people drawn to them whether it is their holiday or not?

The Rituals 

Michael and Lisa (not their real names) both follow Chinese tradition because they have been raised to do so. Every year, here are some of the rituals they follow:

1. Bathing in boiled pomelo leaves on the eve of the New Year and jumping into new pajamas, underwear, and slippers
2. Displaying five kinds of fruit on your dining table: pineapples, apples, oranges, pomelo, and dragon fruit
3. Displaying lettuce heads for family unity, carrots, Chinese celery with roots, yam candies, tikoy, and watermelon seeds
4. Purchasing prosperity baskets
5. Attending the New Year ceremony in temples
6. Having a feng shui master fix your home and perform cleansing rituals
7. Wearing red on Chinese New Year itself

Erin (not her real name), who is not of Chinese heritage, also follows a few rituals. “My friends and I take a trip to Chinatown to enjoy each other’s company and the food, then we troop to a feng shui expert. She tells us what charms to buy and how we would fare for the year. I also go to the temple and light incense sticks and bow during the eve of the New Year.” 

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Why Do Them?

Michael and Lisa both admit that the rituals can get tedious and expensive, but they still follow them every year. “Everything symbolizes something,” explains Michael. “Wearing new clothes symbolizes the new things to come, the fruits symbolize a bountiful harvest or a prosperous year ahead, and so on.”

Michael adds that they need to feel they have prepared for the year. “When you follow all these, you have peace of mind and you look forward to a better year because you know that you did your best to augment your luck,” agrees Lisa. 

For Erin, it isn’t about tradition. “I cannot say if the luck or blessings come directly from following these practices, but it doesn't hurt to do them and I think it's fun,” she says. “I don't take it too seriously.”

Psychologist Kathleena dela Rosa explains the draw of superstitions in general: “People, as a rule, want to have as much control over their environment as they can—although there are certain personalities that need this more than others. Superstition is a way to do that or at least a way to try and control one’s world. It follows that by following superstitions, one’s level of stress may be lessened because you feel like you have gained some sort of control, even if it’s just in your head—or even if it’s really just the promise of control.”

The Drawbacks

As Michael and Lisa mentioned, it can be quite expensive and time consuming to follow all the rituals. However, since it is part of their heritage, they pay respect to their culture by keeping their traditions alive.

Erin admits that if she totally relied on the beliefs, she could see that becoming a problem. When you use rituals to handle your stress, dela Rosa says, “it is handled superficially and one is really just tricked into a sense of security. So instead of people getting used to or relying on better ways to handle stress, they handle it this way, which if you think of it, is not really handling anything or solving any control issues at all.”    

A snake lantern is seen among other Chinese New Year decorations at Yuyuan Garden in downtown Shanghai February …

The Bottom Line

Dela Rosa explains why superstitious tradition continues to live on: “Those who grew up believing Chinese superstitions or any superstitions for that matter, just by the fact that they grew up with them, find a need to follow them or they feel unsettled. Following becomes the path of least resistance or stress.”

As long as you know that the control really lies in your hands, following Chinese New Year rituals and beliefs can work for you. Michael adds, “It’s really about upholding our tradition. In the end, I still believe prayers to God work best.”

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