The Significance of the CNY Reunion Dinner
Chinese New Year is one of the most important festive occasions in Malaysia. Regardless of religion, it is a cultural celebration for all Chinese families, as they gather to mark the lunar new year.
Chinese families all over the world gather with relatives usually in the home of the senior member of the family, for some families perhaps even in a restaurant or hotel. Surrounded by auspicious decorations, family members dress in their best traditional Chinese outfits, typically in shades of red to attract luck.
While other festive occasions also feature the conventional family gathering and merriment over a traditional meal, the CNY reunion dinner is not merely a dinner, but an event full of practices, each with its own significance.
When interpreting the term for reunion dinner or tuan’nianfan, it actually translates to “gathering around the family hearth”.
This annual feast for Chinese families is first and foremost, an opportunity for family members to reunite and express and reaffirm love for each other. Immediate family members and relatives return home for the occasion, with tradition stating that sons return to their parental home, while married daughters may spend the eve of CNY with their husbands’ families.
The act of coming together for the occasion, signifies a renewal of the promise of solidarity to each other, ensuring the continued bond and commitment to closeness among the family.
It is customary that families present offerings as a tribute to their ancestors before the dinner. By placing items such as fruits and flowers on the family altar, deceased relatives are ‘invited’ to be with the family, just as visiting relatives return home.
When to celebrate
While it may vary from family to family, it is quite common to celebrate the eve of Chinese New Year with a long evening, starting as early as 5 or 6 pm. Families will then dine and stay up till midnight to witness the ushering in of the new year together.
What to serve
Chinese traditions dictate that regardless of a family’s stature, food must be served in abundance at the reunion dinner, as generosity will attract greater wealth as families cross over into the new year.
And not just how much is served, but what is served is equally important. While reunion dinner meals may look different in each country and with every family having their own favourite dishes, there are a few platters that are commonly served in Malaysian Chinese households.
Certain ‘lucky’ dishes are must-haves as part of a spread: fish, chicken, red dates, lotus root, spring rolls, and sea cucumber are just a few examples of popular ingredients featured in CNY dinners.
The reason some dishes are considered lucky may vary; for example the Chinese word for certain food items might be homonyms or closely resemble another positive term, such as the Mandarin word ‘yú’ which can be translated to ‘fish’ as well as the word ‘abundance’. Another reason might be the consistency or physical appearance of the dish itself; for example having glutinous rice cake (niangao) for dessert which symbolises a family sticking together, or serving noodles that are long, and uncut as a wish for longevity, hence how the dish gets its name ‘longevity noodles’.
And of course, the traditional yee sang (AKA lou sang or yu sheng), which many families practice as the opener to the dinner, to serve as both a starter as well as being an event in itself that brings everyone to the table to toss the salad while audibly cheering for positive outcomes in the coming year.
Certainly, Chinese culture is rich with tradition, and even superstition. It is these cultural pillars that ground families to each other and act as a guide for every aspect of life from religious rituals to everyday practices such as what to serve during a meal.
It is with the values of family and generosity that Chinese families continue to support each other, as well as their communities, and it is during Chinese New Year that wishes of prosperity, health and family are renewed every year.
GemSpot wishes you a safe, joyous and prosperous Chinese New Year!
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