Henan Arts Troupe will be among the performers at the Kennedy Center’s Chinese New Year celebration. The troupe will perform on the Millennium Stage on Monday, February 8. (From Kennedy Center)

Have you ever had a slice of the Chinese sticky rice cake called niangao? It’s a squishy, sweet, cola-colored confection made with rice flour. It’s sweetened with Chinese brown sugar and water and often decorated with dried Chinese red dates, or jujubes.

Ancient Chinese legend tells the story of a great leader who protected his people with a wall made from bricks of starchy, sticky rice. The wall later saved the people from starvation. Thousands of years later, during traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, many Chinese people celebrate and hope for good luck by devouring delicious niangao.

So, what exactly is the Chinese New Year and why is it celebrated weeks after January 1? The holiday celebrates the start of the new year as dictated not by our modern calendar, but by an ancient lunar Chinese calendar. On that calendar, a new year starts after the second new moon after the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year and the onset of winter). The calendar is based on a 12-year cycle, and each year is named after an animal. In 2016, the Year of the Monkey begins February 8.

Traditionally, Chinese New Year was considered a time to honor ancestors and family. Today, people celebrate with festivals (often referred to as spring festivals, beckoning the beginning of spring), fireworks, feasts and family. People share wishes and clean their houses to start fresh. Food is a big part of the celebrations. Fish symbolizes abundance, long noodles symbolize long life, and dumplings shaped like the full moon and filled with pork, vegetables and shrimp symbolize prosperity and the family unit.

“Chinese New Year is a time to have fun, gather with family, enjoy fireworks, parades, dances and of course good food,” says Li Hong, who handles cultural affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “It’s also a tradition that the older generations give lucky money to the young generation in red envelopes.” They call it “red pocket money,” she said.

A lion dance marches as part of last year’s Chinese New Year Parade in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

In Chinese culture, the color red symbolizes prosperity, happiness and good fortune and is a big part of any Chinese New Year celebration.

“Everything is red,” Li explains, “from beautiful paper lanterns to red clothing and paper cards in windows to the huge dragons and lions in the traditional dances.”

Li grew up in Beijing. “For me, Chinese New Year is always about the family gathering. That’s still the most important part,” she says. “It’s a time of warmth, a time to go home, eat good food and an opportunity for everyone to express all their best wishes for the new year.”

Festivities

The Year of the Monkey begins Monday. People born during this year are said to be clever, smart and quick. Other animals of the Chinese calendar are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, rooster, dog and pig. Here are a few free events where you can celebrate the start of the Year of the Monkey.

Chinese New Year Festival

Participants prepare for the start of last year’s Chinese New Year Parade in Washington. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

What: Performances, food and kids activities.

Where: Luther Jackson Middle School, 3020 Gallows Road, Falls Church, Virginia.

For more information: A parent can call 703-868-1509 or visit chinesenewyearfestival.org.

Lunar New Year Celebration

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

What: Dance performances, mask-making, family tours of sculpture exhibition.

Where: Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Avenue SW.

For more information: A parent can call 202-633-4880 or visit asia.si.edu.

Chinese New Year at the Kennedy Center

When: Saturday-Monday

What: Family Day on Saturday (11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) will feature costume dress-up, lantern-making, calligraphy demonstrations and other activities. Millennium Stage will feature the Lily Girls’ Choir on Sunday and the Henan Arts Troupe on Monday, both at 6 p.m.

Where: 2700 F Street NW.

For more information: A parent can call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

Chinese New Year Parade

When: February 14, 2 to 4:30 p.m.

Where: H Street NW between Sixth and Seventh streets.

Jazynka is a children’s author and regular KidsPost contributor.