Starting family Chinese New Year traditions

The requests started coming about a month ago.

"Mama, can we put up some Chinese New Year decorations, please? Why don't we have any?" my son asked.

Then he began asking for red paper, spare red packets and any red bits and bobs that he could fashion into festive trimmings or gifts for his grandparents and friends.

Two weeks ago, he wanted me to buy a "ba bao pan", literally an "eight treasure plate" or a serving platter that the Chinese typically fill with various festive sweets and nibbles for their guests.

A week before Chinese New Year, my seven- year-old sprang another request on me: "Will I be wearing new clothes? Have you bought any for me?"

Oops, I had not. So we set off after school the next day for what would prove to be one of the most tiring shopping trips of my life.

Every item I picked was "ugly", "too pink" or "just not nice". Every piece he fancied was too casual, cartoony or, yes, just not nice.

Add to this the fact that shoppers aren't exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to fashion options for boys - checks, stripes and superheroes just about sum it up - and you could see why the afternoon was shaping up to be a disaster.

Then suddenly, his face lit up. He had spied a rack of traditional Chinese costumes, complete with mandarin collars and frog buttons. "Wow, so nice!" he kept exclaiming, fingering lovingly what looked to me to be cheap polyester.

"Seriously?" I was taken aback. "But they are so..." Tacky was what I was thinking. And literal. There were no quirky elements to lift the designs from pedestrian to anywhere near a la mode.

"Wow, Mama, they come with matching pants too," he went on, oblivious to my reluctance.

Since he would not budge, I tried coaxing him to go for the version in bright cobalt blue instead of the dull maroon he wanted. "You must wear red for Chinese New Year," he protested. Exhausted, I gave in.

Back home, as he struck various gongfu poses while showing off the outfit to his younger sister, I took pictures and sent them to mine. "It hurts my fashion cred to dress my child in this when it's not Racial Harmony Day," I moaned.

I guess I am the Chinese New Year edition of Scrooge. While I'm a sucker for all things Christmas, I'm not a big fan of the hoo-ha that accompanies Chinese New Year.

I find the endless "dong dong chiang" festive songs annoying, the preoccupation with red boring and the obsession with wealth and fortune perplexing.

I love only the fellowship with friends and family - everything else just seems a tad too noisy, gaudy and over the top.

Thank goodness, then, that I have kids to rekindle the excitement that used to grip me as a child whenever we prepared to usher in a new year starring a different animal.

Their schools deserve much credit for this.

My son and his four-year-old sister have been coming home nearly every day in the last two weeks with songs, greetings, craft work or stories related to this most important festival for the Chinese.

I've never seen my son, who's in Primary 2, show such enthusiasm for his Chinese classes.

His school held a cultural week in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, during which all the boys were exposed to various activities related to Chinese culture. These included making panda bears from clay, crafting paper puppets and learning to play Chinese chess.

There was also an inter-class decoration contest and some generous parent volunteers sponsored a lion dance performance on the eve of the festival.

My kids learnt about the mythical nian monster and some festive traditions in school, then came home and peppered me with questions and suggestions.

How about putting up a big red banner to keep the nian monster away?

What is the order of the animals in the Chinese zodiac? Why can't we give hongbao to adults?

Oh, and leave me to come up with all the auspicious sayings when we toss the raw fish salad this year, my son instructed. Then he promptly gave me a preview by rattling off a string of greetings that involved wealth, health, horses and dragons.

My children's enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself eyeing some bright red Chinese-style paper cuttings one day while shopping for groceries.

Shall we go get some festive plants, I asked my husband another day. I wanted to start some CNY family tradition like dressing up a Christmas tree every year that would leave them with some fond memories.

And when my son asked for the lyrics of the song Gong Xi Gong Xi, a festive staple that is played ad nauseam everywhere, I happily obliged and even tried to memorise all the verses with him.

Someone once said the joy of our kids is our drug and parents would do whatever we can to fuel the addiction by creating more moments of magic.

I'm thrilled that my kids take such delight in embracing the festive mood and I'm aware that these wonder years are fleeting - their childish glee comes with an expiry date. Soon, I know they will share my inertia and jaded attitude.

Before that inevitable day, however, I will try my darndest to make new year a truly happy occasion for them.

stlife@sph.com.sg

Has having kids changed the way you celebrate special festivals? E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 22, 2015.
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