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Fortune, Family, Tradition: Exploring Lunar New Year

Three young ladies are at a table, doing crafts.

2019 Lunar New Year Celebration at the Museum.

The tick of a clock, 11:59 becoming midnight, and a new day beginning; although not, usually, a significant event, this all changes with the knowledge of a new year and a fresh start ahead. Although your mind may jump to the date of January 1 upon hearing the above, this is not the start of the new year for everyone around the world. New year celebrations happen (almost) each month of the year depending on culture and the calendar followed.

We can all agree that a fortuitous new year is what we strive for. Culturally, some very distinct and delightful traditions are partaken in, to help ensure the new year tips fortune in our favour. In Macedonia, in the Eastern Orthodox faith, it’s customary to eat homemade pita bread with a coin inside. The finder of the coin is said to gain luck for the coming year. A Haft-Seen table is assembled during the Iranian / Persian new year, with seven items all beginning with the letter ‘S’ on display and all symbolizing positivity for the coming year. Contrary to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown with the blowing of a ram’s horn, the Balinese New Year (known as the day of Nyepi) is spent in total silence. The Burmese celebrate with a 3-4 day long water festival and, alongside a similar theme, the people of Thailand have a custom that involves pouring water on their elders in order to receive blessings for the new year.

One of the biggest human events on earth, celebrated by (roughly) 1.5 billion people, is Lunar New Year (not only celebrated in China, but in North and South Korea and Vietnam as well). Friday, February 12, 2021 marks the first day of the Year of the Ox and the beginning of Lunar New Year. Let’s explore further. . .

Tian Xiaomei, known as May Tian, moved to Canada from Yanquan, a small city located in Shanxi province, China, just over ten years ago. If there’s one thing May misses about China, it’s Chinese New Year . . .“It is 15 days of celebration,” she says, and adds that almost everyone takes the whole week off for the very family-centered holiday, “we always take this as the biggest holiday for Chinese people.”

Family visits during any holiday season is guaranteed (no matter what you’re celebrating (and despite the pandemic circumstances surrounding this specific year)), but, bearing in mind China’s large population, the travel during Chinese New Year is considered the world’s largest human migration. “Imagine everyone moving,” explains May. Hundreds of millions of people travelling across country to see their families - making a collective 3 billion trips. This migration is so incredible that there’s a term for the phenomenon, Chunyun.

Crowds of people in a train station.

Chunyun period inside Beijing West Railway Station

Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chunyun

One New Year, May was on her way home to see family by train. Her classmates were seeing her off, but because the train was so full, she couldn’t get in the door. May decided to improvise, “somebody opens a window and my classmates have to push, hold me and push my legs and foot through the window.”

Food, fireworks, and traditional Chinese dance are all part of the celebration. A favourite tradition amongst children is the giving of the red envelopes; “we always look forward to getting the hongbao, which is uh money put in red packets,” recounts Siew Lin Polk in her Oral History. “And uh—So we’ll count by the end of fifteen days how much money we could get so we could buy something with it.”

Two decorated red envelopes with coins nearby.

2019 Lunar New Year Celebration at the Museum.

The red envelopes are meant to transfer fortune to the recipient for a safe and peaceful upcoming year. The tradition stems from a demon named Sui that came to terrify children while they slept. Legend has it that, on New Year’s Eve, parents gave their children eight coins to play with in to order to keep them awake and safe from the demon. The children wrapped the coins in red paper, opened the packet, rewrapped it and repeated in order to keep themselves awake. The act didn’t work and, eventually, the children fell asleep. When Sui arrived, however, the eight coins emitted a strong light and scared the demon away.

Immersed in legend, there are several taboos that go along with Chinese New Year (though not all are practiced by every person). Before celebrations begin, a day is dedicated to cleaning; the point being to sweep the bad luck away and make room for the good. Cleaning during the actual celebration is seen as risky as one could, unintendedly, sweep away their good fortune.

“Need to change sheets to be new or clean. Big, bigger clear . . the garbage make sure is out. So the bad luck go and with good luck this year, says,” Qing Li Murphy in her Oral History. Other taboos warn against using sharp objects so as not to cut your stream of wealth and success; “and they make sure the hair is done before Christmas time,” says Qing Li. Due to this, some salons are closed throughout Lunar New Year celebrations.

Although being in Asia for Lunar New Year is definitely something to place on the bucket list, most large cities worldwide observe Lunar New Year. London, San Francisco and Sydney all claim to have the largest celebration outside of Asia. In the Oral History of Tung Chan, former board chair of the Museum, he talks about the first Chinese New Year celebration in Kelowna, B.C . . .

"We present the first Chinese New Years celebration in Kelowna, in the community centre. We thought it was going to be just about ten, fifteen people who’d showed up. Two thousand people showed up! . . . it was so funny, because, when you have a celebration, you got to do something, so . . . Robin, uh, was on the lion’s head, doing the lion’s dance, I was on drums. I never learned it before (laughing), but I was on drums. And, uh, Dr. Wang, is a Western trained, uh, doctor—was doing acupuncture for people. And—it was great! It was so much fun.”

Traditional celebrations are some of the core aspects of any culture. When immigrating to a new country, continuing to celebrate your traditions helps keep you in touch with your culture while adapting to a new one. In the Oral History of Lin Dai, she explains . . .

“I think I’m learning to be a Canadian. But now I’m learning to—live as a Chinese-Canadian, as well . . . We can’t forget our culture, right? Even now I am officially as a Canadian on my passport, but inside I’m still Chinese (laughs). Culture is something you—it’s not good or bad; it’s there. . . It’s in my blood. Sometimes, we struggle: Are you a Chinese or a Canadian right, if we are immigrants. So for me, it’s like a—it’s a question for my two sons. . . They will ask me, “Do you love me more than my brother?” Li—I say, “You are my left hands, okay? Your brother is my right hands. So I love you both.” The same here. It’s naïve to ask and say who you are. Canada is my left hands; China is my right hands. Right? I love them both and they’re both in my blood now.”

We want to wish all those celebrating Lunar New Year 2021, good health, good fortune and a very happy new year!

Three young girls dressed in traditional costumes celebrate Lunar New Year.

2019 Lunar New Year Celebration at the Museum.

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