Chinese New Year: Local residents honor traditions, celebrations
Some folks celebrate their new year with noisemakers, champagne toasts, silly hats and glasses.
But when Monday marks the start of Chinese New Year — also known as Lunar New Year and Spring Festival — millions of people around the world will usher in the ancient public holiday by donning new clothes, hanging red lanterns and setting off firecrackers.
The festival spans 15 days, preceded by a week or so of cleaning out the old to bring in the new. Then, by tradition, people will travel far and wide to be in the company of family and friends, to eat, drink, pray, and share gifts and good deeds. The holiday culminates with a parade of lanterns.
"It's the biggest festival of the year for people across China, Vietnam and Korea. It's like Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year's wrapped into one," said Adam Silver, executive director of the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont.
The center will host its 14th annual Lunar New Year Festival celebration from 1 to 3 p.m. this Sunday, at the newly renovated 118 Elliot space in downtown Brattleboro, Vt.
Like other culture-specific holidays, such as Mexico's Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and even Christmas, Chinese New Year has grown beyond its borders, expanding to include both sacred and secular observation, influenced by traditional rituals and contemporary celebrations.
One traditional aspect is the naming of the new year. The lunar calendar is influenced by Chinese astrology, and each year is associated with one of the 12 animal symbols in the Chinese zodiac, as well as one of the five elements. This year, 2016, is known as the "Year of the Monkey," or more specifically, "Year of the Fire Monkey." Mathematically speaking, the various element-sign combinations recur ever 60 years. Often, instead of asking about or telling one's age, people in Chinese cultures talk about their animal year.
So, if you ask Sabrina Tan, head chef and owner of Flavours of Malaysia in Pittsfield, about it, she will tell you she was born in the Year of the Tiger. She'll also tell you about the big Chinese New Year gatherings her grandfather used to orchestrate back in his hometown of Lunas, a small town near Kulim, located in the northwestern Malaysian state of Kedah.
Leading up to the festival, families clean the house together "from top to bottom," said Tan, getting rid of everything "bad" from the past year, from dust to chipped dishes. Practices of reorganization, known as "feng shui" is said to clear out negative energy and bring in a flow of good "qi" or "chi," a positive energy.
The colors of red and gold are used in decorating the home, and are also used in festivals, as they represent good fortune, joy and overall prosperity. New clothes and shoes are also purchased to give people confidence with a new look for a fresh start.
While contemporary couples and younger groups of friends are now choosing to travel and celebrate the holiday abroad, the more traditional practice is to make a pilgrimage home.
Tan said the evening before the start of Chinese New Year is "all about families getting together, a reunion is more like it. The holiday takes place after the harvest of food, so there is plenty of sharing, and everyone far comes close to be together."
People will sit at home until midnight, when the festival lurches into action with the setting off of firecrackers and fireworks. According to folklore, the noise and colors — as well as the use of lantern lights, dragon and lion masks throughout the festival period — are said to scare away evil spirits and an ancient demon named "Nian"; hence the New Year's phrase "Guo Nian," which means to "overcome Nian."
The proceeding days of the new year include eating festive foods, visiting neighbors and friends, praying to deities, giving gifts and sharing — "and no swearing for 15 days," Tan said.
Chinese New Year is a pleasant, social experience celebrating abundance.
"My grandfather would do a big feast for the homeless and give out packets of goodies," said Tan. Older relatives also give younger family members red packets or envelopes of money, sometimes used for clothing, and other times as an investment toward college or future funds.
Today, both Tan and Silver say their families like to share the Chinese heritage and tradition with their local neighbors and patrons.
Tan and her husband, Chin Lee, and their children celebrate in more traditional ways with fellow Berkshire County restaurateur Harry Yu (Shiro Sushi and Hibachi in Great Barrington, and Shiro Sushi Lounge in Pittsfield) and his family. Their daughter, Suriana Lee, 14, will often dress in traditional clothes, play traditional songs on violin and share treats and stories with her classmates and sometimes restaurant patrons.
Flavours will also share a taste of traditional foods, from whole salmon to special dumplings and desserts, with a Chinese New Year buffet on Tuesday, Feb. 9. The all-you-can-eat buffet costs $26.95 per person with seatings at 5:30 and at 7:30 p.m.
The Asian Cultural Center of Vermont offers year-round educational and recreational programming on various aspects across the diaspora of Asian cultures. "You don't have to be Asian to love Asia," said Silver. "Our center caters to Asian culture enthusiasts and all people of all ethnicities who want to learn more."
For the Lunar New Year Festival and other programs, Silver looks to the expertise of his wife, Cai Xi, the center's co-founder and artistic director. She is from Chongqing city and Sichuan Province and her family is originally from Shanghai. Xi shares her talents as an artist, a chef, a teacher, a tai chi master, and now also trip leader and guide for art/food/culture trips to China.
Silver says he's anticipating some of his favorite festival activities, which will include a 30-foot dragon puppet that will parade downtown, "chasing the heavenly pearl." There will also be a group calligraphy lesson, the Korean rope tug matches (juldarigi) and, of course, "all the delicious food that people share for the potluck," which will include both traditional Asian and other cuisine.
Silver said he relishes the now local tradition of "people getting together to appreciate Asian culture, a very pleasant social gathering with a common interest in Asian culture," as well as the more colloquial experience of taking time to renew and reinvigorate themselves through new and communal experiences.
"The new year is for renewal and I think renewal is important for people to practice on a constant basis throughout the year," he said.
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