Editor’s Note: Today, 1 Feb, also marks the start of Black History Month. In solidarity with our African American and Black relations.
I love lunar new year. It is festive, there is red and gold everywhere, drumming, lion dances, and if I’m lucky red envelopes filled with money will come my way. Growing up in Hawaii, Chinese New Years was a big thing and I got to partake in the festivities that happened all around. At school friends would bring nian gao their grandmas made to share, one year our teacher brought a string of loud and smoky firecrackers to light off from the second floor into the courtyard then littering the ground with red paper that stayed for months. As an adult, I am drawn to the day even more because it is one of the only days where the Asian community is visible. We take one day a year to be full-on-Asian and proud of it.
Every year I struggle to find good articles about lunar new year to share on Fakequity’s social media sites. This year I decided to write my own. Ironically after I decided to write my own I stumbled on pages that do a decent job of talking about different aspects of lunar new year. I still decided to write one from my perspective, but please make sure to read some of the hyperlinks since they have different information and perspectives.
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year is a BIG deal to many in Asia. In China, Vietnam, Korea, and many other Asian countries it is a very important holiday. Businesses shut down, people travel home in a massive wave of migration, akin but different to Thanksgiving travel in America. Unlike Thanksgiving, there isn’t a set date. The lunar calendar follows the waxing and waning of the moon and was important for agrarian societies. Lunar new year marked the end of the last frost and in China the day is known as Spring Festival. In Vietnam, Tết Nguyên Đán or shorten to Tết, is the most important celebrations. Friends have told me that it is a day off from school and work and a time to visit the temple and pay respect to elders.
This year I decided to look up how Japanese celebrate lunar new year. I learned they don’t. In 1873 Japan adopted the Gregorian (Western) calendar and moved to celebrating New Year on January 1. All of this to say not every Asian country celebrates lunar new year.
How to Celebrate
I asked several friends why lunar new years is so important to them. A Chinese American friend said growing up she knew her grandma would be in a good mood on Chinese New Year. Her grandma would take her to the alter and kneel her in front of it and present her to the ancestors, reintroducing her and saying she was a good child and to watch over her. It was her day to be seen and affirmed and she left feeling like “yeah, I’m good with the ancestors for another year.”
Another friend shared how Tết is her favorite holiday. She recalled going to the chợ hoa, flower market, that popped up because everyone would be buying flowers for their homes. She also talked about the cultural tradition of making sure you are clean before midnight, taking a bath, giao thừa. She would get a full bucket of hot water which during the winter was a treat. For some, it is important to get haircuts before lunar new year since it is bad luck to have it done during the celebration time. In Chinese culture knives and scissors are taboo during new year, don’t want to cut away your luck.
Then there is the food, who doesn’t love dumplings, glutinous rice in many different forms, and candy. In some cultures, it is dumplings all day every day during lunar new year season, YUM! In the Korean celebration of Seollal tteokguk (떡국, pronounced TUH-kook) is served, sometimes with a side of family joshing and teasing – ah the joys of being in an Asian family. Often, the food prep was equally as important as the food since it is how traditions are passed down. My friend Bao shared how she helped prep banana leaves for the Vietnamese bánh chưng/bánh tét, a glutinous rice with a variety of fillings wrapped in banana leaves. She also confessed with not being very helpful with the actual work. Growing up I loved when people would bring Chinese nian gao (brown sugar and rice steam cooked dessert) to parties or gave me some to take home, although in Hawaii I just knew it as gao. This year, I found an Instant Pot recipe version, maybe I’ll try to make it.
If someone hands you a red envelope on lunar new year, accept it and don’t lose it. It most likely contains lucky money. In some families, it is customary to kowtow (bow, forehead to the ground) three times before receiving a red envelope from an elder, and now in the digital age online red envelopes are also sent via mobile and the internet.
Many of my friends and family talk about the tradition of the red envelope and how it was a way to show respect and appreciation for each other. A friend talked about how her father’s friend presented her with an envelope because the friend respected her father and he wanted her, as the child, to know how important her father was in his life.
Lunar New Year and Western Society
One of the reasons I love lunar new year is it the only Asian holiday even remotely recognized in the US and Western society. It is one of the few times where Asian children get to see their community come together and celebrate. Because I cling to this notion of having one Asian-y day, my poor officemates every year hear me rant about how organizations forget to check the calendar and end up scheduling events on this day or leave it off their list of important dates. The rant sounds like this: “One day! Can we get one day to celebrate? Why did they schedule on this day?!?” If you’ve accidentally scheduled on this day, I’m not calling you out in particular, many orgs schedule on this day and some are more graceful than others when they find out about the date conflict. It is hard to remember the date of lunar new year since it moves every year, but like other important holidays make a point of learning the dates. Earlier this year Fakequity published a list of culturally important dates to help make it a little easier. If you did schedule on this day and need me at a meeting hand me a red envelope and some gao and I’ll be good.
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