Text by Scott Huntsman Photos courtesy of Foreign Affairs Bureau under the Ministry of Culture
It may appear completely foreign to almost everyone in the West, but nearly half of the world can recognize the symbol “人”, although its English counterpart “people” or “person” is likely even more widely recognized now. Similarly, Christmas is observed around the globe as the most major Western holiday, but for the majority of East Asia, the biggest celebration comes a month or so later. Also like language, culture is fluid, evolving and adapting to external influences. Christmas celebration includes globally constant traits as well as specific regional rituals, and the celebrations surrounding Chinese Lunar New Year are no different.
The origins of the holiday are clear: In an agricultural society (as the country still largely is), the end of winter and dawn of spring is the most hopeful and happy time of the year. Actually, opposite it, Christmas’s position in early winter was placed as such to align with winter solstice on the Roman calendar, a celebration called “Saturnalia”. Early Christians adapted to the conform with the practices of their environment. Globalization and constantly improving travel technology has made the world a smaller place, and cultural coalescence abounds like never before. Christmas trees already sparkle across China’s metropolises in December, but for many in the West, Chinese New Year is still a meager blip on the calendar.
Like many Americans, my first impression of Chinese New Year came via images of dragon dancing in a parade on television, broadcast from San Francisco. Flipping through television channels or glancing at a picture in the newspaper around that time of year was one of the few ways the holiday ever came to anyone’s attention. Later, in Los Angeles, I became close-enough friends with American-born Chinese people to discover that they expected to receive money from their parents around early February, money that would come stuffed in a small red envelope with unintelligible pictographs scribbled on them.