Why Does the Lion Eat Lettuce During Chinese New Year?
If you’re lucky enough to attend a Chinese New Year celebration, you may have the chance to view a lion dance. Likely dating back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty period of Chinese history, the dance is a spectacular, high-energy affair, with performers in bright lion costumes leaping and twirling to the sound of loud drums and cymbals, dancing to bring good fortune in the new year.
Sometimes the dances are held outside businesses, which hang leafy greens, usually lettuce, above their doorways for the lion to leap up, “gobble,” and then “spit out.” It’s a messy affair that sends leaves scattering for onlookers to catch. This part of the dance tends to bring smiles, applause, and laughter from the crowd.
But why choose lettuce for the lion? It’s not a regular part of the carnivore’s diet.
Lettuce Is Lucky
The tradition stems from language. In Chinese and Cantonese, a word for leafy greens sounds a lot like a word for becoming wealthy. When the lion eats the lettuce and spits it back out at the business owners and audience, it symbolizes blessing them with wealth and prosperity in the new year.
A red envelope, also given to bring prosperity at Chinese New Year, is often hidden in the leafy greens to pay the dancers for their performance. The whole tradition is called 採青 cai qing, “picking the greens.”
Not Just the Lion
It’s not just the lion that eats lettuce for Chinese New Year. Eating special foods to bring prosperity is a key part of the celebration, and many people eat lettuce cups as part of their holiday spread. The cups, which can be stuffed with a variety of meats, may feature on the family table alongside pork dumplings, tangerines, 年糕 nian gao rice cake, and other foods whose names in Chinese and Cantonese conjure up images of success and prosperity.
We have a bunch of great activities you can do with your kids to celebrate Chinese New Year. Start out with a printable template to make your own red envelope, then try our DIY Lunar New Year fans. Finally, learn your Chinese zodiac animal to see what your birth year might say about your personality!