An unofficial tradition precedes each Lunar New Year, arriving as quietly as a new moon and then rising to a crescendo in Chinatown as people stream through colorfully strewn streets to prepare for the holiday.
The rite of annual shopping has begun. There are decorations to buy. Clothing and presents, too. Envelopes for gifts of money. Groceries to steam and stir into symbolic dishes.
Ahead of the celebration that begins Friday, pop-up shops on Mott. St. were selling the red envelopes cherished for gifts of cash.
“Normally, we put in $ 2. For us Chinese, things come in two,” longtime Chinatown resident Karlin Chan said as he held up a red envelope with the word “happiness” inscribed in Chinese. “It’s always an even number. We want good things to come in two.”
This year’s celebration marks the Year of the Dog in the lunar zodiac calendar. It’s also known as the Spring Festival, which culminates in the full moon on March 1 and ends the following day.
Shops in Chinatown were trimmed in red, from decorations with dog figures, to red lanterns and the wall hangings that are usually placed on both sides of a home’s doorway.
“Red is the most auspicious color in the Chinese culture,” Chan explained. “Red stands for a number of things. It’s for happiness, good fortune and prosperity.”
Chan remembers his parents — who came to the United States from the Toisan region in southern China in the late 30s and early 50s — teaching him the importance of their family traditions as a child.
“On New Year’s Eve, in the old days, each Chinese house would maintain an ancestral shrine,” he said. “The offerings would consist of a slab of pork belly, a chicken and some fruit, and … incense sticks to pay respects to your ancestors.”
Chan still follows that tradition today. He’s also the senior director of the New York Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club — an organization in Chinatown that has focused on teaching lion dancing, the Chinese culture and martial arts since 1956.
Chan, who has been with the organization since 1969, says he and his team members honor their founding fathers every New Year’s Eve.
“We set up a table with three wine glasses and three sets of chopsticks,” he said. “My master, the one who taught me martial arts decades ago, is part of that shrine. So I will make an offering to him with the chicken, pork and fruits.”
On New Year’s Day, the first traditional meal is a strictly vegetarian dish of soup, rice and vegetables. “As soon as you would see each other in the morning, you would say ‘Gong Hei Fat Choy,’” Chan said. “If you don’t say that, you’re considered rude.”
Blocks away on Centre St., a temple that has been in Chinatown since 1974 welcomes more than 1,000 worshipers every New Year’s Day.
Visitors to the American Society of Buddhist Studies wait on long lines to get inside to pay their respects to a Buddha statue placed in front of the temple. Those who make offerings light incense and leave oranges and apples in front of the statue.
A Buddhist nun who has been a part of the temple for nearly 10 years says the monks take three or four days to prepare for the new year.
“We clean up the whole temple and finish it when we’re doing the Chinese New Year,” the nun said.
She says the master distributes necklaces made of beads that are blessed and places them on worshipers before they leave the temple.
Downstairs, volunteers help cook and hand out vegetarian meals to thousands of people who eat in the temple’s basement.
Asked how much food they prepare, the nun simply says, “We cook a lot.”
Traditionally, homes are cleaned before the festivities, and businesses close for a week to observe the holiday. On the eve, families also come together for a “reunion dinner.”
Shirley Ng, who was raised in Chinatown but now lives in New Jersey, says she wants her three daughters to learn about her family’s Chinese traditions.
“Even if it’s not having the 10- or 12-course family dinner, I want them to observe and acknowledge the Lunar New Year,” she said. “That just ties in going back to our Chinese history.”