The Chinese New Year arrives on Jan. 23 and it is a particularly special year: the Year of the Dragon. Unlike the western New Years Eve holiday, which is often a wild and crazy night marked with excess, Chinese New Year traditions are all about family, friends and, of course, good food.

Dr. Jia Bei Wang, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy and the principal of The Baltimore Chinese School, explains that if you live away from your family, and only come home once a year, this would be the occasion you would make the trip.

“All of the people traveling home at the same time has caused a transportation gridlock in China,” she explains. “It is a holiday for togetherness and unity, and the New Year feast is about welcoming the coming year with loved ones.”

Wang also mentions that nearly everyone in China will be tuned into the televised Chinese New Year party sponsored by the government. “The show features dancers and other performers,” she explains. “The whole family gathers around the television to watch, because that will be what everyone is talking about for days.”

Holiday symbols

The holiday in the east and west is full of symbols that invite health, unity, and prosperity to the celebrants. Rebecca McGinnis, coordinator of the Confucius Institute at Maryland, explains that even though dragons are always featured in Chinese New Year décor, they are everywhere this year.

Temple dragon for the Chinese New Year“Because it is the year of the dragon, you will find the dragon symbol on everything,” she says. “The dragon represents one of the 12 zodiac symbols, and it means power, benevolence, graciousness and wisdom.”

Red is the color for the holiday, and in China, many people will paint their front doors red. In the United States, people celebrating the holiday are more likely to adorn their front door with red decorations or red gift-wrap. McGinnis explains that red symbolizes prosperity, because in olden days, it was made from carnelian, which was a valuable mineral.

Another symbol of the Chinese New Year is the full moon, because the holiday is on the first day of the lunar new year, and also because round symbols are lucky. “In Chinese, the word for round is similar to the word for wealth.”

Gathering for a feast

Perhaps the focal point of the holiday is the feast. Celebrity Chef Ming Tsai (pictured lower left), owner of restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., and known for his show, “Simply Ming” on PBS, hosts his own Chinese New Year banquet at Blue Ginger, incorporating items from tradition and from his own childhood celebrations.

Chef Ming TsaiThough born in the United States, he carries on many of the traditions learned at his family’s restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen in Ohio. His menu for the holiday is based on the concepts of wholeness, prosperity, and the many puns and plays on words that feature so prominently for Chinese New Year.

“Wholeness is an important element for Chinese New Year, so it is important to serve your fish, chicken or duck whole, with the head on,” says Tsai.

This year, the chef will include both a crispy whole fish with a black garlic basil sauce, and a whole Peking duck with hoisin lime sauce.

“Another important symbol is prosperity, so I will be serving a braised lion’s head [a large meatball] on bright green bok choy, signifying money and prosperity,” he explains.

Red envelopes for the Chinese New YearHe continues other new year traditions as well.

“As a child, I was always given a sealed red envelope with a small amount of money in it to bring prosperity into the new year,” says Tsai. “Now, for Chinese New Year, I give all of my employees a red envelope with a few dollars in it to carry into the new year, with the instruction to keep the envelope sealed unless it is an absolute emergency to maintain the wish of a prosperous year.”

More traditions

Chef Tsai added another tip for celebrating Chinese New Year: “Don’t wash your hair on Chinese New Year, as it will wash away the good luck. Just use some extra hair gel on Monday!”

Other Chinese New Year symbols that translate into the feast are long life, abundance and fecundity.

Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong, professor of Asian social and cultural history at Johns Hopkins University, explains that long noodles are often used in the meal as a symbol for longevity.

“Fish come into play often around Chinese New Year because the word for fish sounds like the word for ‘extra,’ thus signaling abundance,” she says. “Right now, I am working on making ‘Eight Treasure Rice,’ which includes lotus seed, a symbol for fertility.”

So go forth and enjoy your Chinese New Year with the sentiment: "Gong Xi Fa Tsai," which means congratulations and be prosperous!

Know more about Chinese New Year traditions? Leave us a note in the comments below.

Photo: Ming Tsai by Anthony Tieuli; leungchopan/Shutterstock; Ksionic/Flickr; MNN homepage illustration: Shutterstock