The Year of the Rabbit hops in today, Feb 3rd, with a 15-day party involving a feast of symbolic food, visits to relatives and friends and general merry making with age-old traditions such as lion and dragon dances. All around the world, folks of Chinese descent will celebrate (or not, as the case may be) in different ways, depending on which region in China they trace their lineage from.

Celebrations commence with food, family and firecrackers – in an elaborate reunion dinner with relatives on the eve of the new year, when entire pigs, ducks, chickens (for unity and happiness) or whole fish (symbolizing prosperity) are served, alongside other foods which symbolize luck (tangerines), fertility (eggs and seeds), prosperity (pomelo) and longevity (noodles). Sweets and firecrackers round off the evening’s festivities.

The next morning, children wish their parents and grandparents a happy and healthy year ahead, while older and married members of the family present kids with packets of money known as hong bao. The first day of the Chinese New Year is like having Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Remembrance) and Rosh Hashana (Jewish new year) rolled into one – all is forgiven, grudges cast aside, and families look forward to a fresh and happy beginning.

Alexander Lee, who with his wife Sue Sein, own Sesame on Bloomfield Ave, talked to Baristanet about how their family will ring in the new year.

“On the very last day of the year, we’ll have immediate family over for a big feast,” Lee said. “On the first day, we’ll visit relatives, bringing along gifts for the grownups and red packets (hong bao) for children. This continues for the first seven days of the year.”

“As for food, there is a standard of whole chicken, whole fish and lobster – basically the good stuff you don’t normally eat every day.”

The festival has its roots in myths and legends, and red is a fiery color worn to thwart a mythical beast which is said to be bent on the destruction of livestock and crops, as well as children. The beast’s Achilles’ heel, however, is a fear of noise, hence the firecrackers, lion and dragon dances enjoyed over the course of the fortnight.

Dumplings, which resemble money pouches and symbolize wealth, are eaten commonly in the north of China, while a new year cake – a sticky pudding of tapioca and sugar – is eaten in the south. The latter’s stickiness is yet another weapon against the mythical child-killing beast, whose gnashers are apparently no match for a glutinous tapioca cake that’s been steamed for 24 hours. (I haven’t attempted to make the pudding yet, but click here for a dumpling recipe and instructions.)

Enjoy the slideshow, which features images of Chinese new year celebrations, including the different symbolic foods (click on the Flickr link to see what each item stands for). And, if you’re so inclined, I’ve recounted a tale of old friendships and new year celebrations here.

To our readers, Gong Xi Fa Cai! Much health, happiness and prosperity to you all.

(This post was published on Baristanet Feb. 3, 2011)