Lunar New Year and Burns Night: connecting cultures 1

As Burns Night and Lunar New Year share a date this year, it’s time to revisit this essay I wrote for The Globe and Mail a few years ago. It seems two of our family cultures have more in common than I thought.

Facts & Arguments: THE ESSAY

Stumbling through Lunar New Year

The more I researched, the more my head was spinning. Everyone plays fast and loose with the rituals


February 7, 2008

“Are you digging a hole to China?” my dad asked my brother and me as we plowed deep in our bottomless backyard sandbox.

China. As far as you could go. Half a world away. A mystery. We dug with determination, hoping that an adventure would greet us on the other side.

More than 40 years later, my family of five includes two girls from China. An adventure, indeed.

Among the reams of papers we signed in preparation for their adoptions was a vow to honour their heritage.

Ready to learn, we started with Chinese New Year. We were blank slates, wary of committing a cultural faux pas.

In those sandbox days, bringing in the new year had been an important event. To my Aberdeen-born mom, it was Hogmanay, the high holiday of Scotland. She missed the bagpipes at midnight but she held on to the more easily accessed traditions.

We rang bells at 12 o’clock. The first person through the door on the first day of the year had to be dark – meaning dark-haired in Scotland – and carry coal, food and drink. That meant me leaving the house and re-entering with the required fortifications. The coal ensured warmth for the coming year; the food and drink ensured sustenance.

Just as my hair prematurely greyed, our daughter from Jiangxi arrived, nearly black-haired with eyes to match. My mom was glad to see her.

Hogmanay still on track but with a cast change, we started our lunar research.

The Internet and reference books gave us a long list of requirements. Everyone should have a haircut before Chinese New Year. Pay off debts. Complete all homework and assignments. Clean the house and, in particular, sweep the floors.

But as soon as midnight strikes, no hair washing, no sweeping and put away all sharp blades. You don’t want to disturb the good fortune that will enter your lives at the start of the year.

So far so good. A holiday that involves the entire family in cleaning.

New Year’s dinner is a 10-course event to symbolize abundance and wealth. It must include a whole fish to represent togetherness and abundance; long noodles for a long life; and a whole chicken with head, tail and feet intact to symbolize completeness.

Hmm. The kids were about as likely to eat food with heads as they were to try haggis on Robbie Burns Day. It was getting complicated, and I had questions.

How do you prepare 10 courses without a knife? Do you leave the spilled Cheerios on the floor all day? I checked with friends of Chinese heritage. They had a lot of versions of what should be done but were vague on what actually happens in their households.

The more people I consulted, the more the stories changed. It seemed everyone was playing fast and loose with the rituals. Even the books didn’t agree with each other. One called for vegetarian dishes, the other meat. A website recommended crisp dollar bills in the red lucky money envelopes. A friend insisted shiny coins bring better luck. The envelopes my daughters received from schoolmates were full of candy.

Head spinning, I was close to surrender. What if I introduced my kids to the cultural equivalent of coloured eggs at Christmas?

Then I caught a television interview with a man in a kilt who said the first dark person to enter your house after midnight should be given a drink. What? Had we been celebrating incorrectly all those years? What about our good fortune? A neighbour from Scotland assured me that only coal was required – no food, no drink. Had we missed the crux of it?

I had to go back to the books to find out what the real deal was with Hogmanay. It seems I should have been a man, a handsome one at that, to really do the first footing justice. My brother, while handsome, was blond.

The fruitcake we used for food was a good choice, but we could have been more prosperous had I been carrying a silver coin.

Turns out I knew as little about Hogmanay as I did about Chinese New Year, but the signposts were all pointing in the same direction.

Scrubbing down the house and cleaning out the hearth is just as important in Scotland as it is in China. I guess as kids we didn’t join in that part of the “celebration.”

Opening the doors to your house at 12 o’clock to let out the old and blow in the new is done in both countries, along with making noise to scare off evil spirits. In China, it’s drums and firecrackers. In Scotland, it’s the banging of pots and pans and the blaring of boat horns in the harbour.

Visiting with neighbours to wish each other a good year is big in Scotland. It starts at midnight and carries on for days. Same thing in China.

While the parallels are remarkable, the root of the celebrations is identical. Follow the traditions – not necessarily by the book – and you will have all that you need for the coming year.

I’ll leave my knives in the drawer today. We went to a restaurant to share the 10 courses with 500 of our new friends – families with children from China.

As the banging drums of the lion dance began, I thought of the sailors’ horns blowing in Aberdeen. It’s closer to Jiangxi than you’d imagine.

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One thought on “Lunar New Year and Burns Night: connecting cultures

  • Leanne Semple

    新年快乐, Gong hei fat choy, Helena and family. Enjoyed this piece. Brings back many memories of Robbie Burns dinners at the church; and the sandbox at the park. Dug to China many times myself! May your weekend celebrations be full of old and new traditions and much love.