It Takes a Community to Celebrate

red envelope and chocolate money

red envelope and chocolate money

Chinese New Year in the United States.

I don’t celebrate Chinese New Year. Well, okay, I do remember it, and I talk about it. I note that 2014 is the Year of the Horse. And I send red envelopes stuffed with dollars to my grandchildren. But I don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year.

batik on silk by N. Chen

Year of the Horse (batik on silk by N. Chen)

In China, Chinese New Year is an enormous holiday, so you’d think that when my Chinese husband was alive, he would have insisted on celebrating it. But no. We never lived where Chinese New Year was celebrated. If we did remember, we gave hongbao (red envelopes) to our daughters, and sometimes we ate slices of nian gao (sticky rice cake) warmed and softened in a frying pan.

Nian gao isn’t a prize-winning delicacy in my book, but sticky rice cake is an ancient food with legendary appeal. It’s said to keep the Kitchen God’s mouth stuck shut so he can’t tell tales about humans to the Jade Emperor. Besides, nian gao means both “sticky cake” and also “taller year,” which I guess is better than shorter year. (The Chinese language is a treasure trove for punsters.)

loggerrodeo 1961The 4th of July

The biggest celebration in Sedro-Woolley, WA, where I grew up, is the Loggerodeo on the 4th of July. The whole town celebrates with a carnival, rodeo, fireworks, a logging show, beard-growing contest, kiddie parade and finally the Grand Parade, a procession of floats, prancing horses, high school bands and bagpipers, souped-up cars and shined up logging trucks.

When we lived in the Philippines and later in Vanuatu, there were no fireworks or parades on the 4th of July. It was like any other day unless some Americans decided to throw a party.

Halloween and UN Day in Manila

Filipinos do celebrate All Hallows’ Eve, but not by trick-or-treating. On October 31st, the eve of All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and again on the eve of All Souls’ Day (November 2nd), they visit the graves of their departed loved ones. If we had dressed our kids up like ghosts and witches or superheroes or princesses when we lived there and sent them to knock on our neighbors’ doors and threaten them with a trick if they didn’t get some candy, I doubt that the neighbors would have understood.

UN DayFortunately, United Nations Day falls in October, and since our daughters attended the International School, they had ample opportunity to dress up for UN Day parades and festivities.

American Thanksgiving abroad

We celebrated Thanksgiving a couple of times when we lived abroad, a scaled-down affair with a few American friends and a couple of stuffed chickens. Most years, though, we ignored it—which may sound sad. It wasn’t really. Giving thanks is a year-round activity, and homeleave was our big chance to gather with our families. Homeleave may not have been a holiday, but it lasted longer than just a few days.

It takes a community.

My older grandchildren are studying Mandarin, so for Chinese New Year I sent them each a red banner, hoping they can use it for a class party. I sent my youngest grandchild a lantern, thinking he can bring it to show-and-tell.

I think I’ll go back to Ranch 99 and buy something for my critique group. We’re meeting in a couple of days. Then, even though we’re not in China, we can celebrate together, just a bit.

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
Culture, family, Philippines , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. It’s funny what we celebrate and what we don’t. We barely celebrate Christmas mostly because my stepkids live on the other side of the country. For the two of us it’s just sending out a package and a few dinners out with friends. However, we do celebrate Valentine’s Day with most gusto sending out a more robust package to our two 8-year-old granddaughters. We do that because it’s so much fun to buy little craft kits and such to surprise them. Your life was so interesting that I don’t think you missed anything.

    • You’re right, Kate. It seemed that any holiday I missed while living abroad was substituted with another celebration. For example, my husband’s employer, being an international organization, didn’t throw a Christmas party, but their “End of the Year Dinner-dance” was fantastic!

      Speaking of craft kits, according to my daughter, the Chinese lantern I sent to my 5-year-old grandson was really hard to put together. Oh dear!

  2. Teresa

    At my office today, we are celebrating game day. People are wearing blue and green (Seahawks) and we have a lunch table full of snacks.

  3. Chick Sandifer

    Nicki–once again, a delightful reminscent. Fun to read,. . .and remember you at the Logger Rodeo Queen. Remind me some time and I’ll sing a little ditty about the Logger Rodeo my Bro wrote.

  4. Holiday’s, how people celebrate them–or don’t, are always interesting. Your writing is so vivid and colorful, mixed in with the pictures you add–I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying your blog!

  5. Your story about nian gao made me realize something kinda ironic.
    I have always thought of our town as a rather traditional place but nobody (that I know) eats nian gao on Chinese New Year Day.

    We usually put nian gao on altars or inside the main cupboard. The nian gao will remain there at least until the second Lunar month arrives.

    Some people will not eat the nian gao until the year is almost over. Traditionally made nian gao, which is wrapped with banana leaves, has very long shelf life. It will still taste good by the end of the year. 😀

    • I can imagine nian gao lasting a long time, but I’m surprised it’s still good at the end of the year. It must have something to do with wrapping them tightly with the banana leaves.

  6. Love this post about the celebrations here or abroad. For me, born abroad, Thanksgiving remains a wonderful celebraton (food, no gifts) but I wonder if I would celebrate if i ever returned to France. Probably like you, a much smaller meal with fewer people. Thanks again.

    • Thanksgiving is a wonderful celebration–gathering with family, eating the customary foods (maybe with a new little twist), and sharing recipes for leftovers the next day. Even if we don’t enjoy the typical celebration every year, we can remember the times we did.

  7. My son made a Chinese lantern years ago in grade school and I still hang it for the Chinese New Year. It’s fun, pretty and festive. I love “It’s said to keep the Kitchen God’s mouth stuck shut so he can’t tell tales about humans to the Jade Emperor.” What a great way to handle a tattle tale.
    Gung Hai Fat Choi! I’m off to order Chinese take out! Nice to meet and read.

    • My sister proved me a liar. She invited me and my niece and nephew and their baby over to celebrate Chinese New Year. It was half take-out and half homemade. Very tasty. I wore a red blouse.
      Happy New Year to you.

  8. Interesting post, Nicki. Lovely the various celebrations we share with special foods and traditions.

  9. We celebrate all these holidays such as Christmas, Western New Year, Chinese New Year etc. not as other people would celebrate because right now it is just us two and so we have few days of from work, relax and go eating out. This Christmas was actually the first that we prepared some nice things such as decorations, Christmas cookies as a test round for when our baby son is having his first Christmas.
    So without people around we do not do much but as soon as we are for example at Christmas with my family in Germany we celebrate it fairly traditional.

    • I smiled when I read that you had a test round for your baby’s first Christmas. My nephew had a baby in 2013, and now they take full advantage of all the holidays. On Halloween, for example, they dressed their baby in a pumpkin costume and took him to a pumpkin patch, carried him through the maze in the corn field, and photographed him with pumpkins.

  10. One of my earliest memories of living in Mt Vernon, WA, was “Hickory Hat Days.” I was only about three, but I remember the dunking booth and the hats, but not much else. It’s about the only thing I remember of my third year, so it must have made a big impression on my three-year-old mind.


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