Asians Celebrate the New Year – by Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

for menThe first day of the year in the lunar calendar is to many Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese who live outside their home countries, the most important festival of the new year that they celebrate.  Other Asian ethnic groups may join the festivity in their neighborhoods even though they observe their owe New Year days.  For example, the Thais honor their Songkran (Water Festival) in April or the Gujaratis celebrate theirs the day before the Asian Indian Diwali (the Festival of Lights) in late October or early November.  As for the Japanese and Filipinos, they choose to observe the Gregorian New Year.  With this festive day around the corner, let’s look at some of the New Year traditions of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese.

Notwithstanding the regional differences that exist in customs and traditions throughout China, the level of New Year festivity there is comparable to that of Christmas in the U.S.  In general, houses are decorated in the celebrative red and gold rather than the Christmas red and green.  They are also adorned with peach blossoms and narcissus—symbols of longevity and prosperity respectively—instead of the Christmas tree and poinsettias.  Fruits like oranges, kumquat and pomelos complement the New Year décor because they signify wealth and fortune.  Finally, spring couplets of  black calligraphy on vertical red paper are hung on entry gates and on walls throughout the house to express well wishes for good health and boundless fortune. New Year is a time for family reunions and the New Year Eve’s dinner is especially sumptuous.  While a portion for every living member of the family is accounted for when preparing rice, his/her individual place setting is also kept vacant if absent.

Everyone stays up late to welcome the New Year, hoping to bring health and longevity to their elders.  At midnight, firecrackers are set off to chase away the evil spirits of the outgoing year.  Children bow to pay respect to their parents and elders.  In return, they receive “lucky money” in red envelopes (húngbāo in Mandarin Chinese).  Elders also receive lucky money from their grown children, symbolizing well wishes.   In a way, this is like our Christmas gift exchange. For the Chinese, the New Year is also a time to turn over a new leaf.  To prepare for it, houses are cleaned with every corner swept, debts paid, and disputes resolved.  On New Year’s Day, new clothes (including underwear) and new shoes are worn.  After paying homage to ancestors and reverence to the gods, the younger members of the family also pay respect to their living parents and elders.

For the first meal of the year, many Chinese eat steamed glutinous rice cake (nián gāo) or steamed turnip cake (luó bo gāo) while others solely consume vegetables.  In Mainland China, stores and restaurants are generally closed for ten days straight.   Many return to their home town to visit families and relatives, primarily to exchange well wishes like gōng xĭ fā cái.  The seventh day of the new year is traditionally everyone’s birthday (rén rí).  Hence, one would add one year to his/her age on this special day. The entire new year celebration ends on the 15th of the first month called the Lanterns Festival (yuán shao) when many communities hold lantern competitions.  At the end of the competition, the elders get to take home a lantern.  Therefore, the more lanterns one has collected over the years, the more blessings one has in terms of longevity.

To the northeast of China, in Korea the celebrations are generally similar.  Early in the morning of New Year’s Day (soel in Korean,) each family hangs a bok-jo-ri—a strainer made of straw—on the wall, in hope of scooping up many blessings for the family.   Everyone, particularly little children, dresses in traditional solbim that is made of fabrics with five festive colors—red, blue, white, green, and gold.  The younger generation performs a memorial rite of bowing called charye to honor their ancestors and sebae to wish their elders good health and longevity.The Koreans also consider the New Year as a time to add one’s age, although they do so on the first day. Everyone customarily eats a bowl of rice cake soup (ttŏkkuk) and drinks some rice punch (shikyhe.)   After this ritual and throughout the next 15 days, family members and friends visit one another and reconnect over food, drinks, and games.

On daeborum— the first full moon of the year—everyone eats a certain number of peanuts, chestnuts or walnuts that are equivalent to his/her age.  The belief is to celebrate one’s life as well as to stay healthy in the coming year.  A commonly prepared dish eaten on the day of daeborum is glutinous rice cooked with millet, red beans, sorghum and large beans called okokhap.  Believed to protect one’s health throughout the year, it is usually eaten with nine different types of vegetables dried in the previous autumn.

Moving from northeastern Asia to the southwest corner of the continent, one notices that like the Chinese, the Vietnamese welcome their lunar new year (tet) by cleaning the house and settling any outstanding debts.  Many decorate their homes with peach blossoms if they are from the north or apricot blossoms if they are from the south.  Pots of cone-shaped kumquat bushes that symbolize good fortune are also displayed prominently in the house.   To pay homage to ancestors and to demonstrate gratitude, a tray with five different candied-fruits is placed on the ancestral altar in the house. For good luck, the Vietnamese customarily eat a square cake made of glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork (banh chung) and a concoction of pickled radishes, peppers, and other vegetables called dua mon.  They also visit friends and relatives during the official three-day festivity as they wine and dine to catch up with each another.

Similar to the Chinese custom, small children in Vietnam also receive lucky money in a red envelop from their elders.  Although the Vietnamese Government banned firecrackers several years ago, the revelry of Lunar New Year celebration remains. Coming from a culture where ancestors and elders play an integral part in traditions, many Asians in the U.S. continue to pay respect to their ancestors and elders on New Year’s  Day.  In addition, the China Towns in San Francisco or New York City historically offer various types of celebrations highlighted by parades, lion dances, or even an 18-foot long dragon dancing to the beats of drums and gongs.

Smaller Asian communities throughout the country may organize entertainments that include demonstrations of one or more of the five Chinese traditional arts—music, chess, calligraphy, painting, and martial arts.  If you are interested to get a taste of the lunar New Year festivity, be sure to check your local Chinese community center.  It is something that you will not want to miss!

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Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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