Ringing in the new year with cultural traditions

asianave February 4, 2012 Comments Off

Whether your routine involves finding the perfect person to plant that midnight kiss on or eating a slab of a whole suckling pig, every culture has its own traditions for celebrating the new year. Like contrasting American and Korean barbecue, new year traditions may seem difficult to compare. However, they are rooted with the same hope: to plant seeds of happiness and good fortune that will blossom in 12 months ahead. Here’s a look at some common themes among New Year’s traditions.

While the traditional Western New Year is celebrated on January 1 of every year, the dates for some new year’s festivities change annually. For example, the 15-day Lunar New Year celebration begins January 23 this year. In Chinese traditions, the Lunar New Year celebration begins on the new moon and ends on the full moon 15 days later. But the lengths of festivities vary in different countries. For example, it is only a three-day celebration in Korea and might only be acknowledged for one day in the U.S.

The Lunar New Year also involves the rotation of the Chinese zodiac calendar. January 23 will mark the end of the Year of the Rabbit and welcome the Year of the Dragon. Occupying the fifth position on the zodiac calendar, the Dragon is the mightiest of all signs.
“Even though western and lunar new year traditions may be different, it’s really nice to know a little bit about both. It’s a great way to bond with family and friends and also learn about traditions passed down generations,” said Nhung Nguyen, a pharmacy student at the University of Colorado who celebrates both the Western and Lunar New Year.

Forgetting the past
If you’ve ever belted “Auld Lang Syne” without really knowing the real words or made ambitious New Year’s resolutions that only lasted until February, you are not alone. “Auld Lang Syne” is a Scottish song that translates as “Old long since,” and signifies letting go of old times while holding on to significant friendships. It is urged to end grudges and pay off all debts before the first day of the year.
Whether you pledge to fully commit to the gym or eat less ramen, resolutions have been a way of self-improvement for centuries. Nguyen said her new year’s resolution is to not make any resolutions, so she won’t let herself down if she doesn’t follow through.

It’s a little silly but it hasn’t led me astray thus far,” Nguyen said. “However, one tradition I always stick to is wishing happiness and long lives to my family and friends in the upcoming year.”

Amuda Mishra, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Ancshutz Medical Campus celebrates both the Western New Year and Nepalese New Year in April; she finds it beneficial to make resolutions for both holidays.

“It means I have two chances to mess it up,” Mishra said.

A preview for the months to come
The vibrant Nepalese New Year is traditionally observed the second week of April. Mishra, who is originally from Nepal, said her family always gathers at an elder family member or friend’s home to feast, exchange gifts and play games. She said it is a belief in her culture that the way you are on New Year’s Day will be a preview of the rest of the year, so everyone practices their best behavior.
“If you want the year to be good to you, you better be nice,” Mishra said.

One custom acknowledged by some Vietnamese and Western households involves a “first-footer,” the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day. If the “first-footer” is an admirable, successful individual, the home is predicted to be blessed with good luck. However, if the first person to step into the home is less than desirable, a rough year is likely. The head of the household may even leave at midnight for a few minutes, and then return to protect against unlucky “first-footers.”

Looking your best at the stroke of midnight is not just about impressing your date; there is a superstition that buying new clothes for the first day of the year can open doors to a year of prosperity and an abundant wardrobe. Lunar New Year traditions in Korean, Thai and Vietnamese cultures all mention shopping for new clothes.

Jin Hongsunirundon, a student at Colorado Technical University, celebrates the Western New Year, the Lunar New Year and the Thai New Year in April.

“Buying new clothes for New Year’s is like preparing for a new beginning,” she said. “Before January 1 in Thailand, all the malls are packed with people shopping for new clothes and gifts.”

Food, glorious food
Everyone knows oranges are loaded with vitamins and nutrients, but they can also be the key to good fortune. Exchanging and eating oranges during the Lunar New Year is a common custom.

“They are symbol of wealth, health and prosperity,” said Hongsunirundon, who exchanges the citrus with friends and family.
Dan Stein, commercial banking assistant at Vectra Bank in Boulder, said his family always celebrates the Lunar New Year in New York’s Chinatown. He said his whole family would sit at big round tables with Lazy Susans in the center and his grandfather would order a spread of lobster, noodle and fish dishes.

“Dessert would always involve oranges,” he said. “Everyone gets one.”

Lunar New Year food is as delicious as it is symbolic. Fish dishes symbolize a surplus of food while long strands of noodles represent longevity. Dumplings filled with various delights symbolize “packages of good luck.”
Eating food that looks like money during New Year’s celebrations is considered good luck. In the Philippines, people eat round fruits and wear polka dots. In the U.S., especially in the southern states, it is considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas, lentils, peas or cooked greens because they resemble coins and cash. It is a tradition in parts of Spain to eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, so every month will be full of wealth.

Dishes are often paired with pork because pigs are considered forward-moving animals, which is why those in the South pair the lucky black-eyed peas with ham hocks and Lunar New Year feasts often have suckling pigs. Eating pork can help you move forward, while eating birds might cause you to live in the past because birds scratch backward.

Pay respects
A big aspect of the Lunar New Year is to honor ancestors, who are essentially the foundation of one’s existence. Offerings are made and incense are burned for ancestors who have passed away, and families tend to gather at the home of elders.

Graphic designer Charlie An celebrates the Korean tradition of bowing to his elders at the beginning of every year.

“In my family after the first of the year, we eat a traditional dish called ‘tteokguk,’ which means one year is added to your life. Then we bow to my parents and exchange traditional greetings.”

“Tteokguk” is a traditional soup made with beef broth and chewy rice cakes. Elders usually respond to the bowing by offering words of wisdom or blessings.

It is also common Lunar New Year tradition for elders to distribute a red envelope filled with money to children or unmarried individuals. Red is a big color for the Lunar New Year; it represents joy and happiness, while black and white represent mourning and sadness.

Phong Vo, head coach of Colorado Asian Cultural Heritage Center’s dragon and lion dance troupe, celebrates the Western New Year, but considers the Lunar New Year a very special holiday.

“In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is in spring so you can smell the spring flowers, water, trees, and rice from the wind. Even though I live in the United States I still can smell the smell of the Lunar New Year coming every year,” he said.

A few weeks before the Lunar New Year, Vo goes shopping for a new Lunar Year calendar, candies, some fake yellow lucky flowers and red envelopes to give lucky money to all his students, nieces and nephews. He especially loves teaching lion and dragon dancing because it gives the troupe the opportunity to celebrate with people in the community.

Ward away evil and bad luck
Dragon and lion dancing was traditionally used to chase away bad spirits and bring good luck to communities, said Vo.

“The dragon, lion, turtle, phoenix, and carp are the five lucky animals in Asian Culture,” Vo said. “Dragon and lion dancing are believed to bring peace, good prosperity, good luck, health and happiness to all.”

Like preparing for a new beginning, cleaning up the home before the new year is also a common custom worldwide. Some think of it as also doing away with bad luck before starting any new endeavors. Lunar New Year traditions in Vietnam urge the use of a broom to “sweep away” bad luck, but sweeping should always be done before New Year’s Day.

The Thai New Year or “Songkran” is celebrated April 13-15; people throw water on one another to wash away bad luck and cleanse Buddha statues and images. The celebration is much like a three-day water fight, where the cleansing customs are considered fun and games in many areas. Cleansing rituals are actually performed all over the world; masses of people gather to plunge into bodies of water to wash away the bad luck of the previous year.

Firecrackers, which were first developed by the Chinese, are rumored to have first been lit to ward off evil spirits, who despise loud noises. Plastic firecrackers are sold for the Lunar New Year to hang around the home for the same purpose.

Whether you choose to sweep away your bad luck or visit an illegal fireworks stand, remember that the new year is an opportunity to start anew. The opportunity to kiss strangers, open red envelopes and binge on pork are just perks when you take advantage of a new beginning new year celebrations have to offer.

Written by: Patricia Kaowthumrong

Comments are closed.