Chinese New Year: More than Just a Ritual

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Red. Bright lipstick red, splashed on walls, hung over doors, and embroidered into dresses. Children open their palms for lucky red envelopes stuffed with cash and candy. Flowers and oranges perfume the kitchen, along with the irresistible scents of moon cakes, dim sum and seasonal delicacies. Chinese calligraphy adorns homes that have just been swept and cleaned, in hope for a year of new beginnings.

Outside in the town square, the lion dancers keep rhythm to the drums and tambourines, and sparkling firecrackers keep everybody on their toes. Excitement and laughter fill the air, as families gather to share conversation and food over dinner, and communities line the streets with festivities.

These are the sights, smells, and sounds of Chinese New Year. They were all around me growing up, and yet I rarely stopped to think about what they meant to me. Regardless of ethnic background, I believe we all have traditions that have impacted us – from going to watch the Japanese cherry blossoms emerge in March, to feasting and dancing at Hawaiian luaus, to even eating turkey and watching football on Thanksgiving!

What makes a tradition meaningful? Is it just a ritual, passed down through generations from parent to child? I think it’s more than that. I’ve discovered two reasons that made me think about my cultural heritage, and traditions in general, in a whole new way.

Traditions are about cherished memories.  Chinese New Year is about the nights I stayed up playing games with my cousins in the family room, while our parents talked and traded stories late into the night. It’s about honoring my past and heritage. My grandmother immigrated to the United States in her early twenties and brought all of her cultural traditions with her, passing them on to my mother and now to me. These traditions are more than just rituals — they are connected to stories and values of sacrifice and perseverance, that have granted me the opportunities I have today in this country.

Traditions are also about relationships and love. My grandmother expresses her love through serving food to her family, because she grew up in modest circumstances where there was often not enough to eat. When my mother was young, she would watch my grandmother slice vegetables and soak dried ingredients for the vegetarian dish “jai” to make fresh for Chinese New Year. She bustled all her children into the kitchen to wrap homemade dumplings – more than enough for the whole family to enjoy. My parents still give us red envelopes, not for the money inside but as a reminder that they are thinking of us, and would still do anything to provide for us in our times of need.

These are what make a holiday like Chinese New Year significant: it’s connected to the people in our lives we care about, and the shared memories and heritage we remember with fondness and gratitude. By preserving important family traditions, we honor those who we hold dear to us. This is part of what makes us unique and human, to be connected to meanings and values greater than just ourselves.

As a Christian, I don’t agree with every message and value that is communicated through these traditions. I can be honest about those with my relatives and friends, while still being respectful. I’ve also learned that I can find and encourage others to think about the deeper meanings and redemptive messages within my tradition — much like Christians make a point to emphasize the spirit of sacrifice over commercialism at Christmas time.

Whether you’re an outsider to a tradition that seems strange, or perhaps unaware of your own cultural traditions, try to move beyond your “head” to your “heart.”  Instead of critiquing what doesn’t make sense, ask about where traditions come from. Learn the stories of families and their heritage. Discover the relationships and values that have meaning to people.

You may find yourself unexpectedly transformed, as if discovering a new world not just outside, but inside yourself. I know I have.

Jenny_Chinese_New_YearJennifer Pei,  National Leadership Development Team