I love Christmas as a religious and cultural event. To be honest, I even prefer it to the Chinese New Year.
1) Greetings: Peace vs Money
At Christmas time, the greetings are generally ‘Merry Christmas’ or a ‘Happy New Year.’ People also wish you joy, peace and harmony. However, one of the most common greetings for the Chinese New Year is 恭喜发财 － ‘gōngxǐ fācái’ (or in Cantonese, Gong Hei Fat Choi). It means ‘Wishing you Wealth’. Many more Chinese New Year expressions are related to ‘money and prosperity’. Many Chinese New Year songs are all about ‘gōngxǐ fācái’, and ‘the god of wealth has arrived’. Money is important and the concept of wealth is so ingrained in the Chinese psyche.
2) Atmosphere: Calmness vs Bustling with noise and excitement
I’ve experienced Christmas as a calm and peaceful festival. However, the Chinese New Year is always bustling with noise and excitement, in or outside of your house. There is an expression in Chinese called 热闹 rènào, which is impossible to translate into English, as there is no such concept in the English language. 热闹 rènào can be vaguely translated as ‘bustling with joy, noise and excitement; heat and boisterous’. Deborah Fallows, in her fabulous book, Dreaming in Chinese, described 热闹 rènào is ‘the default mode of Chinese social life’. The Chinese way of life is not about your personal space, it’s all about ‘togetherness’. If I try to use one word to summarise my Chinese New Year experiences, the word would be ‘noise’.
3) Gifts: Nicely wrapped presents vs Money in a red packet
At Christmas time, people get nicely wrapped presents. Chinese get money in a red packet called 红包 hóngbāo in the New Year. As a child, I received so many of them, but once the relatives have left, many of my 红包 hóngbāo would be safely passed on to my mother, for her to use for other people’s kids. It means that I didn’t actually get to keep the money myself. I did feel sad. Receiving 红包 hóngbāo was just a ritual, as the money would end up with your mum who ‘helps look after your money.’ As a child, I understood the New Year time was very stressful for mum, so we were filial enough to pass our ‘earnings’ from the hóngbāo to mum.
There’s a great deal of stress for the Chinese parents during the new year, as they have to prepare so many 红包 hóngbāo to the kids of other people, out of courtesy and social pressure. My mum has so many kids, and there’re a lot of logical thinkings about how much to put in each 红包 hóngbāo to her own kids and to other people’s kids.
My mum is kind and generous, I remembered some acquaintances would turn up with their children to greet us, and mum was obliged to give the kids some money in 红包 hóngbāo.
However, receiving Christmas gifts is different. Kids are more likely to keep the gifts than mum recycling them. The joy of opening a big box of gift is immense. I enjoy it so much as an adult myself.
4) Leisure: TV vs Gambling
At Christmas time, family watch TV, get drunk, go online shopping, and some families keep some family tradition alive such as doing a jigsaw puzzle or playing board games together. However, in the Chinese New Year, you may be surprised to know that gambling plays a big part in many families and the communities. It’s not uncommon for the police to raid families who gather for ‘a bit of fun’ in gambling too. (You may also be able to bribe the police.) There’s even an expression which justifies gambling during the Chinese New Year as ‘a little bit of gambling soothes your mind.’ （小赌怡情）. People would also gamble in the New Year to try out their luck for the whole year（手气). Above all, many people feel that a bit of controlled gambling is harmless, especially during the New Year, as you’re being with your family and everybody is relaxed, having fun, a bit of chatting and being together.
I come across this interesting blog post by sixthseal about gambling during the Chinese New Year. According to the blogger, “Yup, it’s a tradition along with fireworks and heavy drinking – the third component of celebrations would be gambling! “