When my Po Po was alive, she used to cook the entire feast by herself, and it would take her several days. Since she's passed on, my aunty has been the one cooking Chinese New Year dinner. Unlike Thanksgiving and Christmas, where each member of my family contributes one dish, Aunty usually cooks Chinese New Year dinner all by herself. This is largely due to the fact that Chinese New Year is not a State or Federal holiday in Hawaii, so we don't get the day off to cook. Aunty will take one day of vacation time to spend the day cooking, but it's always a lot of work for her. However, the importance of the holiday, with its need for special foods, usually outweighs her busy schedule. Not having the day off, also means that we usually have to rush over to her house after work that day, both to enjoy the huge feast she's made, and to pay respects to our ancestors.
Whether they're Buddhist, Taoist, or whatever, many Chinese families will have an altar in their homes for their ancestors. It isn't so much a form or religion (you don't really worship your ancestors), as much as it is a form of rememberance and respect. To be perfectly honest, it never really meant that much to me until my Po Po passed away. After she was gone, and we put her picture up on the altar, suddenly the whole altar had new meaning for me. Suddenly, standing before the altar didn't mean paying respect to people I had never known, but it meant communicating with my Po Po again, telling her how my life is going, asking her for help and advise, and of course wishing her Happy New Year.
After we had all said hi to Po Po, my uncle and I would take the paper money from the altar and go outside to burn it in a pot. Unlike Western beliefs, Chinese believe that money is still required in the afterlife. But instead of working and toiling for your cash, you are taken care of by your decendants. So every New Year (as well as funerals, death anniversaries, and Ching Ming), we burn thin paper with gold & silver foil on it (sort of like origami paper), called gum ngun. In actuality, the paper is supposed to folded to look like gold teals (the nugget of currancy in the very old days), but since we don't have the day off, we've been burning unfolded paper lately (hopefully Po Po won't mind too much). Living in the modern times, we also have paper money that resembles Western bills to burn, but we usually save that for Ching Ming. When Uncle and I have finished burning, we would pour 3 small cups of liquor into the pot, followed by 3 small cups of tea, to finish it all off. After we've finished burning everything, its time to eat!
In the West, and even at most Chinese dinners, there is one type of soup to start off a meal. But for this meal, Aunty always cooks 4 soups. These soups are actually most important part of the meal. Each soup has a highly symbolic meaning and we usually only ever get to eat them at Chinese New Year, so they are very special. This is especially so, for the first soup, which also happens to be my favorite one, called fat choi tong. Fat choi is a type of vegetable, a seaweed, that looks exactly like jet black hair (although slightly thicker than real hair), therefore it is called fat choi (which literally means "hair vegetable"). This is one vegetable that had Andrew Zimmern known about would surely have been showcased on Bizarre Foods, because it is kind of frightening looking to the uninitiated (it really looks like a big clump of hair floating in your broth). But I really love the texture of this vegetable, which I can only describe as kinda similar to cooked alfalfa. It has a very subtle flavor, but somehow it is still not overpowered by the chicken in the soup. You will also find this vegetable in traditional jai, but there it just blends in with all of the other ingredients, whereas in this soup it is showcased as the star. This vegetable is highly significant for New Year's as it's name, fat choi, is a homonym, which sounds just like the Chinese words for wealth and good fortune (as in Gung Hee Fat Choy).
Following the soups, Aunty usually cooks a number of different dishes. In years past, she has slow braised whole chickens in her pressure cooker (something I used to refer to as "bathtub chicken" because of the shape of her pressure cooker). This year she opted for some pork chops. They look basic, but they were cooked just perfectly tender and juicy. She adorned them with carrot medallions (also representative of gold coins for the shape and color).