What You Can Learn From Lunar New Year

Jennifer Pei

Picture 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 swept and cleaned in hope of 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, and communities line the streets with festivities.

These are the sights, smells and sounds of Lunar New Year. They were all around me growing up, and yet I rarely stopped to think about what they meant to me. Regardless of one’s ethnic background, 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 eating turkey and watching football on Thanksgiving Day.

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

Traditions are about cherished memories. Lunar New Year is about the times 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 by serving food to her family. 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 to make fresh “jai” — a vegetarian dish — for Lunar 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 Lunar 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 we hold dear to us. This is part of what makes us unique and human — being 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 think about the deeper meanings and redemptive messages within my tradition and encourage others to do the same — 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 you are unaware of your own cultural traditions, try to move beyond your “head” to your “heart.”  Instead of critiquing what doesn’t make sense, ask where traditions come from. Learn the stories of families and their heritage. Discover the relationships and values that have meaning for people.

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

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