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Chinese New Year is a time when houses and people alike are decked in majestic shades of red, exchanging Ang Baos (red packets) and feasting on delicious festive treats together.  To the average Singaporean, this is perhaps the quintessential way to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

By looking into these celebrations, you will soon realise the deeper layer of traditions and legends underneath every action (and not just because our grandparents told us).  Here are ten meanings behind common traditions during Chinese New Year.


  1. Avoid Washing Your Hair and Clothes. 

No household chores on Chinese New Year.  No sweeping, cleaning, or washing because that means we are getting rid of our good luck.

People also avoid washing their hair and clothes on the first and second day.  This tradition follows a myth in the olden days, where it says that doing so would be offensive and bring bad luck to the family.

Additionally, hair in Chinese is pronounced the same way as fa in facai, which means ‘to get rich’. Washing your hair is akin to washing away your fortune for the new year.


  1. Staying Up Late on Chinese New Year Eve.

Some of us stay up late during Chinese New Year Eve, and when asked, the common answer is that the longer you stay up, the longer your parents will live. But it’s actually an act that stems from Chinese lore.  As the story goes, villagers back then would stay up late to keep a watch for the monster Nian during Chinese New Year Eve, and to keep themselves occupied, they would eat and drink through the night. From then on, this act was dubbed shousui, which means to “keep vigil”.


  1. Giving Ang Bao (Red Packet).

Ang Baos are a Chinese tradition that have known since we were young.  They are given out as gifts to the young and unmarried, so seeing kids with gleeful smiles and outstretched arms are sights that we are all familiar with.

This custom stems from the legend of the Eight Immortals.  In a couple’s bid to save their newborn son from the evil demon Sui, they turned themselves into coins and hid under the baby’s pillow amidst sheets of red paper.  Upon the demon’s arrival, the coins gave off a powerful beam of light that frightened it off.  Since then, it became common to give children coins wrapped in red paper to protect them from Sui, and it eventually became a way to bless them with well wishes and good fortune.


  1. Wearing Red Underwear.

Wearing bright red apparel is almost instinctual for Chinese New Year, but some people take it a step further by ensuring that their underwear is also red.

It is usually just a means to bring yourself luck.  But traditionally, it is a way to protect yourself against benming nian (the year of the Chinese zodiac animal you were born in).


  1. Reunion Dinners.

Reunion dinners are perhaps the most important meal of the year. It is called Tuan Yuan which translates as “gathering around the family hearth” and in traditional times, family members would drop everything to travel back home for an annual meal together. It is a symbolic way to ensure that the family remains strong in the face of the new year.

Even the dishes served contain some form of symbolism. Some of the typical dishes that are featured include:

  • Fish (yu in Chinese, which sounds like ‘surplus’): to bring in prosperity.
  • Sweet rice balls (tangyuan, which sounds like ‘reunion’): to promote family cohesion.
  • Glutinous rice cake (nian gao, which sounds like ‘year high’): symbolises a new year with higher income or job positions.
  • Traditionally, these dinners are eaten in the family home, but these days, it is common for families to dine out at fancy restaurants.


  1. Lo Hei.

Other than enjoying a meal with our family members, our reunion dinners will traditionally include Yu Sheng (or Lo Hei, as it is more commonly known in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia).  It is the time where we toss the mixed ingredients as high as we can to gain better fortune in the new year.


  1. Exchanging Oranges.

We are all familiar with the act of exchanging oranges, but some things that we may not be so aware of is the reason why we do so.  Other than the fact that they symbolise luck and wealth, they are also known as Song Gam (in Cantonese, means “giving gold”). 

Doing so is an act of exchanging and prosperity with one another, which goes all the way back to ancient practices.  It is always two oranges to double the prosperity exchanged which is termed Shuang Xi in Chinese, the most common symbol for good luck.


  1. Wearing Brand New Clothes

Chinese New Year is the time we see friends and family wearing new clothes.  Clothes would typically have to be in red or bright colours.  No blacks or whites are allowed as those colours are usually associated with funerals and death.

More importantly, it is a time for new beginnings.  


  1. Pay Debts Before Chinese New Year.

In the days leading up to CNY, it is customary to clear off all your debts before the new year arrives.  There are two main reasons for this: (1) It allows you to enjoy the holiday without worry; and (2) you may be “cursed” if you do not pay them off in time. Legends say you will forever be in debt if you bring in outstanding repayments into the new year.

However, in the event you are the one who is owed money, you should not demand for your repayments, either.  That is because Chinese New Year is meant to be a time of peace, understanding, and love.  Demanding repayment from the person would not only disrupt this but will bring bad luck to both yourself and the other person.


  1. Do Not Break Ceramics or Glass

We try our best to avoid breaking things in general, but extra precautions need to be taken during Chinese New Year.  That is because it is considered to bring misfortune and money loss to the person who broke the item.

Thankfully, there are ways to rectify the situation if it (touch wood) happens to you.  Just wrap the broken item with a piece of red paper or cloth and murmur auspicious phrases such as “sui sui ping an”.  As sui can refer to both “year” and “broken”, it’s a way to expel the bad luck and have you remain safe and sound.