Invited to a Chinese baby banquet? Wonderful! Here are some do’s and don’ts on what is expected that day. Just being invited and included is an honor because you will be a part of a family tradition that started many years ago in China. So go and enjoy!
A crowd formed inside the restaurant and there was a lot of commotion. After being greeted by two girls sitting at the front table, one of which took my baby gift putting it among all the other lovely wrapped presents of all sizes, I was told to find my seat at one of the appointed ten tables.
Then I saw the newborn, the main attraction. She was sound asleep in her infant seat but absolutely adorable in a lovely red satin Chinese tunic outfit. Around her neck was a gold necklace and a tiny gold bangle hung on her wrist. I almost couldn’t contain myself. I really wanted to hold her even though I knew that would be impossible without awakening her. As well wishers rushed to her offering congratulations to the new mother and tucking red envelopes onto her clothes, she did not stir. Her Mother proudly beamed as everyone praised how beautiful the little infant was.
Looking around, I could tell there was going to be quite a party. I couldn’t get over how times have changed concerning babies.
In the past, the Chinese displayed no big fuss or attention over newborns. Some babies were even kept from view since many superstitions arose in fear that they would be taken by bad spirits who would cast an evil spell on them. Families and midwives generally practiced several religious rituals immediately before, during or after the infant’s birth. These included wearing certain coins, burning incense before religious objects and prayer to the Household Gods and eating special foods.
When a baby is one month old, some parents send a piece of barbequed pork, two red-hardboiled eggs, two black sugar (dow-sa) buns and slices of pickled red ginger as a token of appreciation to those who had given gifts to the newborn. At one time special lucky red money paper was placed in water and boiled to make red dye for the eggs.
To the Chinese, the color red is lucky, since it represents happiness and good luck. Now in the center of each table are two plates: one with red eggs and the other with red ginger. Their oval “yuan” shape is traditionally associated with harmony and unity.
Red ginger is important because in the yin (cold) and yang (warm) balance of Chinese food, ginger adds a touch of “hotness” to the nutritional needs of the mother and is considered to be very healthy.
Today the Red Egg and Ginger baby banquets are usually held in local Chinese restaurants either for lunch or dinner so that family and friends can catch a glimpse of the newborn and offer their heartfelt congratulations to new parents and grandparents. When a male infant is born, a gold coin (chin) or gold medallion that symbolizes good luck and long life can be attached to his clothing on this special day. For a girl, she would either be wearing a coin pendant or bracelet during this celebration and there might be lots of small red envelopes pinned to their clothes too.
These tiny red money envelopes are known as lai-see or hoong bow (envelope) and any denomination of cash can be given ranging from $5 and up. Lai-see is more than a gift of money but an expression of good wishes, good health and long life.
The restaurant was getting noisy. I found my name card and sat down. At each place setting was a cute party favor, a tiny soap wrapped with red netting, tied with pink ribbon displaying Sara’s name. No one was sitting at the table yet so I reached for a hardboiled egg to eat with red ginger. Just as I was finishing it, the other diners at my table arrived. Sally said, “Didn’t you think the baby invitation with Sara’s picture on it was darling?” I had to agree. “Yes, it was different, wasn’t it? Nowadays it’s getting to a point where we don’t see the store-bought ones anymore.” Sally said, “Well, with computers, mothers can now create their own and they’re getting more and more unique.”
Suddenly, a man’s loud voice came over the loudspeaker. He told all of us to be seated. People scrambled to get into their seats because dinner started. The grandfather, bursting with pride, got up to speak first and offered thanks to the guests for coming and joining in this joyous celebration. Then it was the parent’s turn. Baby Sara’s father stood up carrying her and put his arms around the mother. He explained just how thrilled and delighted they were with their brand new baby and being able to share this time with everyone. His words were, “I can’t believe my good luck and fortune to not only be married to a wonderful woman but now we have a baby too. Life doesn’t get any better than this. Talk about good luck.” He smiled and kissed his wife on the cheek and then said to enjoy the meal at which time we all looked up to see that they were starting to serve as the first dish and what a dish it was — a cold plate of assorted appetizers like barbequed pork, barbequed duck and other specialties. I could tell that this was going to be the start of something great.
Then my mind whirled from all the aromatic flavors that seemed to fill the room. There were so many different wonderful dishes that I couldn’t keep count. Next came seafood soup filled with all kinds of delightful tidbits like tofu and vegetables, followed by crispy chicken, lettuce wrap, braised prawns with candied walnuts, Chinese mushrooms with mixed greens, sweet and sour spareribs and it ended with the delicious traditional long life noodles. Yes, this was a meal befitting the introduction of a new princess.
As I looked around people was busy chatting and enjoying the delicious fare. Now the new baby was awake, carried by her parents, together with her grandparents and parents were proudly moving from table to table showing her off to relatives and friends. Everyone at these tables stood up, and after giving the baby, a lai-see, took turns carrying the little one and fussing over just how precious she was. It was obvious from the way the parents and grandparents were beaming that they were overjoyed with the newest addition to their family.
Another quick glance over the crowd as to the bright-colored attire confirmed what I always thought was true. That you should never wear white to these happy events since the color white is associated with mourning.
Now the happy family was approaching my table and as I reached out to hold the cuddly, sweet little infant in my arms, I realized just how much joy this one little person has brought to this family for what can be greater than a baby to love?
So rejoice in this beautiful celebration where the infant is the guest of honor.