Looking Back

‘Lumpia’ because it resembles a roll of money

/ 12:28 AM January 27, 2017

Christmas in the Philippines is truly the longest in the world. From the time Christmas carols are aired in shopping malls and radios in the “ber” months starting in September, to the Feast of the Three Kings (Epiphany) on Jan. 6, that covers over four months of cheer that should divert our attention from stuff like the extrajudicial killings reported daily. In our home we don’t take down the Christmas decorations until the Chinese New Year, which will descend on us a bit earlier than the usual February. I see all sorts of Rooster figurines being sold in the malls to greet the Rooster Year that begins on Jan. 28, as if we had recovered already from the start of the Gregorian New Year last Jan. 1.

While I am not married and technically exempt from distributing little red envelopes with money, I have been doing so as an extension of Christmas. I was told that angpao should be given to parents, relatives, employees, and children you encounter in the Chinese New Year. A friend we refer to as “The Empress” says the contents should range anywhere from P120 to P240, P360, P480 and so on, depending on one’s means. A friend from Hong Kong says there is no hard and fast rule for the amount in the envelopes, adding that the P120, P240, P360, etc. were a Taiwanese custom. Both friends are amused that I put different amounts in the envelopes and that when I offer angpao I spread them out like a fan, in the manner of a magician telling someone to pick from a deck of cards. There is an element of chance here because the envelopes can contain anywhere from P20, P50, P100, P200, P500, or P1,000.


My paternal great-grandfather was a Chinese from Amoy who settled in Guagua, Pampanga. I only know him from the vague recollections of relatives who can’t even remember his name. I was told he spoke Chinese, sported a ponytail, and met his end after a quarrel with a boatman who hit him on the head with an oar.

That makes me about one-eighth Chinese, so to make up I follow CNY customs more than my Chinese friends do. Before the eve, I shower and scrub myself clean, the last rinse with water infused with pomelo leaves to wash away the past year’s bad luck. We gather as a family (just as we do in the Gregorian New Year) around a hot pot or fondue dinner—logical in a cold climate but not in our tropical climate—to foster closeness in the coming year.


Our friends suggest that on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, family meals should include these auspicious foods: prawns or shrimps to bring happiness (because the sound of the Chinese word for prawn, “ha,” is like laughter); fish to usher in a year of plenty (because the sound of “fish” in Chinese, “yue,” means “left over”); lumpia (because it resembles a roll of money); meat or chicken or fish or squid balls (because they are round like coins); the Spanish dish lengua (because the sound of the Chinese word for tongue, “lei,” is like that of the word for profit); a whole chicken, including the head and feet (nobody seems to know why except that it is a staple at the festive table); and cooked rice, more than what can be eaten (because there will be leftovers—again an indication of abundance).

The number of dishes served must never be 7 (not counting the rice), the lucky numbers being 6, 8 and 9. The meal ends with tikoy, preferably received as a gift rather than bought. The stickiness is for closer family bonding, the sweetness for good relations between and among family members. For the New Year’s Day meal, you add radish cake or tikoy because they are dishes that rise, just like fortune. A vegetarian dish with lettuce is also served because in Chinese it sounds like “growing money.” There seems to be no set rules for the drinks, and we often have pitchers of sangria that we nurse through New Year’s Day because we have to stay up as late as possible for the long life of our parents.

New Year’s Day starts by eating something sweet and having any of the lucky fruits at the table: Mandarin orange, pomelo, banana, red apples, pineapple, etc. No bathing or sweeping or cooking or using sharp utensils until midnight.

With another year gone, everyone wishes that the Rooster year will be better than the Monkey year just passed.

 Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Chinese new year, Christmas, extrajudicial killings, Lumpia, money, opinion
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