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Holiday traditions evolve with tweaks from the digital age
By Zhang Qian

The Chinese New Year is rife with traditions, which is no surprise after more than a 1000-year history. As did their ancestors, families still prepare nianhuo (年货), or fruit, clothing and other goods, in advance. Family reunions sit around a dinner table on New Year’s Eve and pay calls on friends and relatives the next day. 


Firecrackers explode from apartment patios and rooftops at midnight, and hongbao (红包) — the red envelopes of money — are given to children and the elderly. That’s tradition. But celebrating China’s most auspicious holiday does adapt to changing times. This year, for example, Shanghai has banned all fireworks within the Outer Ring Road. It’s a measure to prevent the smoky aftermath from worsening already bad urban air and may also prove a plus in preventing the annual toll of fireworks-related injuries. Still, inventive vendors have already come out with multiple electronic fireworks and firecrackers as substitutes, so there may be noise without smoke. The fireworks ban isn’t the only alteration in celebrations. Let’s look at other changes.


Red envelope money, also called ya sui qian (压岁钱), or literally “press year money,” is usually given as a New Year’s gift to children and the elderly as a symbol to dispel evil spirits and keep them safe. Traditionally, hongbao is distributed on New Year’s Eve, which is when monsters are believed to lurk. Recipients of hongbao are supposed to keep the envelopes under their pillows. 


The tradition is changing because of the advent of online hongbao. Rather than actual paper notes enclosed in red envelopes, online transfers decorated with red envelope patterns are gaining popularity, sparing the need to actually pay recipients a visit. True to the nature of online anything, hongbao is often associated with games or competitions, expanding the tradition beyond just children and the elderly. With the hongbao provided in an online social group, any group member can “grab” random amounts of money by clicking on a red envelope pattern. 

How much a member can get largely depends on random luck and the speed of clicking. Numerous entities have launched hongbao games among customers to boost consumption. Thomas Lin, a 27-year-old white collar, is proud that he grabbed the most hongbao money among his friends, even though it was merely a couple of hundred yuan. According to him, most hongbao given among friends involves no more than about 200 yuan (US$31), with more than a dozen participants. “It is not about the money,” Lin said. “It’s a game where everybody can have some fun. It’s more about grabbing a piece of luck than money. And, of course, it is a good trigger for communication in groups that have been silent for a long time.” Sherry Hu, a 19-year-old college student, says that she still remembers receiving real hongbao from family members in 2013, and then a year later, the gifts shifted online. “It relieves me of having to go through the practice of feigning to reject the money out of modesty,” said Hu. According to iiMedia Research, only about 11 percent of mobile respondents said they used online hongbao in 2014, while the ratio rose to almost 53 percent in 2015. 


Buying two boxes of imported fruit, one box of snacks and new coats for her parents, 30-year-old public relations manager Lily Jiang completed all her New Year’s purchases online a week ago. Fast delivery insures that her gifts will arrive at her parents’ home in the Liaoning Province in northeast China even before she gets there for holiday festivities.

Spring Festival always ushers in one of the year’s biggest shopping sprees. Shopping for nianhuo with her mother is one of Jiang’s happiest childhood memories. “My mum usually started the shopping about one or two weeks before the New Year,” said Jiang. “I still remember the excitement of her taking me into food shops. She always let me keep some candies in my pocket, which I used to trade with little neighborhood friends.”

With her hectic work scheduled, Jiang said she can’t make it home until a day before New Year’s Eve. Last year, she began shopping for nianhuo online. 

“It’s so convenient,” she said. “All the goods will be delivered directly to my parents. And there is so much more variety online. I deliberately bought some imported tropical fruits, like mangos and cherries, which are not easy to find in shops.”

Still, she admitted that some of the childhood excitement associated with nianhuo is gone.  “Maybe it’s simply because I am older, or maybe it’s because purchasing nianhuo online makes it feel no different from daily shopping,” she said. 

Spring Festival Gala

For the last 33 years, part of the ritual of New Year’s Eve had families sitting down together to watch the Spring Festival Gala on China Central TV.

The star-studded extravaganza of dancing, music, comedy routines and magic acts counts down the hours to midnight. The show became popular as television sets became household items in the 1980s. But nowadays, the annual show is looking a bit dated amid an explosion of entertainment options.

Alex Duan, a 28-year-old bank clerk, said he hasn’t watched the program for almost five years. 

“I am just not a fan,” he said. “My parents still watch it, and I may glance at it sometimes. But in most cases, I would rather talk and drink with my cousins and, of course, grab hongbao online with my friends.” 

Linda Lin, 24-year-old graduate student, said it’s more fun to browse netizen comment about the gala online than to actually watch the show. 

“Most of the jokes are old, and many of the singers just mime the words,” she said. “There are always bugs in the program, which sharp-eyed netizens catch.”

Revealing the secrets behind magic acts is among the most popular of online topics, she added.

Both Lin and Duan admitted that the televisions will be tuned into the program even if younger people don’t join their parents and grandparents in watching. It’s nice background sound that makes it feel more like New Year’s Eve. 

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