Lunar New Year Traditions
It is the Lunar New Year Holidays here and as with many holiday celebrations, alcohol plays a prominent role in its celebration. I’ve observed several families saving their best hard liquor, packaged in beautiful bottles, for this special occasion. This gave rise to numerous reflections and memories of Chinese New Year celebrations past.
The New Year celebrations are truly a special occasion in the Chinese culture, filled with various meaningful traditions, many of which I do not fully understand. This is because I grew up in the West. My family stopped celebrating the Lunar New Year two or three years after immigrating to the United States. Christmas soon replaced the Lunar New Year as the special holiday of the year. This was not a difficult or challenging adjustment. It was the natural process of acculturation, something familiar to many immigrant families.
I observed that my family was not alone in making this natural adjustment of letting go of the old and embracing the new. Unlike today, the Lunar New Year holidays were not much of an event in the United States back in the late seventies. Few people even knew the date of the Lunar New Year. I wonder how many people now know the date of and celebrate the Lunar New Year in the West? Furthermore, not only has Christmas replaced the Lunar New Year, but also the Gregorian New Year celebration has replaced the Lunar New Year celebration in my life as well.
The transition to celebrating western holidays was quite easy for me as a child due to my lack of experience and understanding of the meaning of many of the Lunar New Year traditions. There was simply much less to lose and much more to gain as a child. That is why we are quicker to assimilate and sooner to forget when it comes to cultural traditions. Furthermore, it was night and day in regards to the festive atmosphere of the two different holidays. Gone were the loud firecrackers and streets filled with the remnants of the firecracker paper. The firecrackers, to drive away the evil spirits as I’m told, are still around these days, but the streets are no longer covered with the firecracker casings. The quantity, volume, and intensity of the midnight lighting of the firecracker strands are no longer the same. Beyond being more safety conscious, perhaps with technological advancement, prosperity, and enlightenment, evil spirits have been vanquished as well? But most of all, what sealed the deal with Christmas toppling the New Year was Christmas presents over the Chinese Red pockets. You see, we got to keep the Christmas presents! Being good Chinese children, we were taught about reciprocity. Even though we were given red envelopes to celebrate the New Year, we were required to hand the majority of the money gifts back, not to be saved in a Chinese Piggy Banks, but to be re-gifted back to other guests. As children, we were taught early on about the need for recycling!
I was reminded of the meaning and significance of the Lunar New Year on my first trip back to Asia, 22 years after immigration. We visited a poor minority group who lived in hill tribes in Southern China near Guilin. Being a city boy, I was fascinated with how the hill tribe people lived off the land. I observed how they dwelled directly above their animals and how intimately they lived with them. They cared for these animals like their children—children that will literally feed them later on! The daughter shared how the mother would worry over her chickens and ducks, whom she knew individually, whenever she travelled away. I saw how the husband would hike daily into the mountains to cut specially grown vegetation to be fed to the pigs. I thought pigs were omnivores? But I now know that some omnivores are higher maintenance than others for the vegetation would have to be boiled prior to consumption. This was hard work for people who did not have much to live on. But the pigs were fat, happy, and well cared for. I wonder if the pig received better treatment than the daughter? If so, then I can tell others that the US is not the only country in the world where we treat our pets/animals better than our children—as it has been so rumored!
The thing that brought the meaning of the Lunar New Year back for me was this family’s anticipation of the Lunar New Year holidays when they will slaughter their well-fed pig so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. All of a sudden, I’ve awakened to the meaning of the Lunar New Year celebrations. Memories of tasty pork dishes flooded my mind. But now, these memories are suffused with much more meaning. For a short while afterwards, I no longer took the abundance of what we ate during the New Year celebrations for granted. When one has worked hand and foot to serve a pig for six months to a year, tasting the fruits of that labor cannot be taken for granted. What was interesting is that they all craved the lard. Of course for those of us who enjoy good food, we know that fat equals flavor. The only thing was, these people can afford the fat for they did not have much it on their own bodies.
It has been a number of years since I’ve become reacquainted with the meaning and significance of the Lunar New Year Celebrations. Now as an existentialist, I realize that the New Year celebrations are very much about transience and change. I no longer receive red pockets and no longer have to return them either. I’ve learned that the meaning of the various New Year traditions have eroded not with the passing of time but with the accumulation of wealth. I’ve learned that the Chinese can be extraordinary when it comes to our attempts to arrest transience and preserve time. Just look at the typical Chinese household and observe how various items are preserved in plastic wrappers, original or concocted. But it’s also true that the hard liquor inside those beautiful decorative and status-promoting bottles will be imbibed one day. They are saved and preserved for a reason. Boy, how special that day must be! But most of all, I learned that less is more. How one pork dish can be more meaningful than an entire banquet feast! That anything worthwhile must be earned with hard work over time. How hard work and suffering enhances meaning. All of this reminds of the end of the 18th verse of the Tao Te Ching:
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.
Happy Lunar New Year, the Year of the Snake.
-- Mark Yang