Asian cultures are full of symbolism, especially when it comes to Chinese New Year. Every celebratory dish or treat exists for a reason, whether it resembles a lucky shape (dumplings look like ingots—boat-like gold nuggets that represent wealth) or a fortuitous blessing (the Chinese name for sweet rice balls sounds similar to the description of a happy, cohesive family). Being born and raised in Canada, I never really understood the superstitious significance of these food items. Like a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, I simply ate to my heart’s content, gorging on the once-a-year spread of specialties. But there was one element of this holiday that always intrigued me—the abundance of oranges and citrus fruits popping up around the homes of relatives, family friends and Chinese shops in the lead up to the New Year.
The fruit that many eat (or drink the juice of) to start their morning actually holds a coveted spot in Chinese New Year proceedings. Specifically it’s its shorter, squatter cousin—the mandarin orange—that gets all the special treatment. That’s because the Chinese word for mandarin—kam—sounds similar to the word for “gold.” So, having mandarin oranges around the home at New Year is said to bring riches into your life.
If you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant or supermarket in the past few weeks, you might have noticed mandarin orange trees popping up around the entryway. It’s a bit like putting up a Christmas tree or hanging a string of lights in the window—a festive sign that the holidays are coming. The citrus trees are meant to bring more of those fortune-filled vibes into your home or business and the more fruit on the tree, the better. Many Chinese nurseries will artificially affix additional mandarins onto the tree with wire, creating a comically-packed shrub for those eager to usher in a flood of dollar bills.
It’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy as plenty of money exchanges hands during Chinese New Year. It’s customary to give money in a red packet (hong bao in Putonghua or lai see in Cantonese) to your family, loved ones and coworkers—but only if you’re married. So, regardless of how old the spinsters and bachelors in your family are, they’ll continue receiving red packets every Chinese New Year. It might be the only bright side of being the one middle-aged singleton in a coupled-up extended family.
The humble citrus fruit plays a role in this tradition as well. When you’re giving a red packet to someone, you might also give a plump mandarin along with the envelope to sweeten the deal and amp up the luck factor. In fact, mandarin oranges could accompany pretty much anything you’re giving during Chinese New Year to offer your well wishes for them. Tin of cookies? Pop a juicy mandarin on top. Box of chocolates? Put a mandarin on it!
But not just any old mandarin orange will do. In lieu of a full-on tree, individual mandarin fruits should come with its stem and a few leaves attached. It’s not just an indicator of the mandarin’s freshness but it also represents wishes for long life and fertility to the recipient. Leaf-on mandarins are also suitable as tabletop decor over Chinese New Year and they often accompany the traditional candy tray that’s served to welcome guests in your home over the holidays.
Despite all the mandarin oranges one might receive over the holiday, there’s one aspect of the tradition you shouldn’t forget. Mandarin trees and bushes are bred for beauty, so they’re likely covered in pesticides and not at all fit for consumption. Otherwise, many of the single mandarin oranges given for Chinese New Year can actually be quite tart, making them unpleasant to eat. And since they should be kept around the home for the duration of Chinese New Year, which spans 15 days, the fruit could be weeks old before it’s luck-garnering duties have been fulfilled. By this time, the fruit might be a bit shrivelled up or starting to rot.
It’s a bit of a shame, considering how pricey mandarin oranges can get over the holidays. In fact, this year’s crop will be even more expensive than usual. Prices have increased by 20% compared to last year, according to the Straits Times, owing to a destructive typhoon and January frost that has decreased supplies. But we don’t expect it’ll deter the most dedicated celebrators of Chinese New Year. After all, with the mandarin’s wealth-bringing properties, you can consider it a probable return on investment.