Chinese New Year is more reflective and community-focused then its Jan. 1 cousin

As fun as partying until the wee hours of New Year’s Eve can be, Lunar New Year offers opportunities for deeper interactions and connection with loved ones.
Image: CHinese New Year cleebration
Children watch a Chinese lion dance during the Lunar New Year celebration in New York's Chinatown on Jan 29, 2006.Stuart Ramson / Explore Chinatown file
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By Karen K. Ho

As January rolls around, we hear a lot about how to start the year off right through resolutions, discounted gym memberships and guides to throwing a great party. But on balance, the collective focus of New Year’s still seems to be more on how to recover from a night of indulgence and a year’s worth of regrets. And at their core, whether backward- or forward-looking, these annual rituals are all inward-looking.

Thankfully, I get to make New Year’s resolutions and wishes twice, as there’s another holiday right around the corner that provides a better model for how to commemorate the passage of time: The Lunar New Year.

We’d all be better served by embracing a celebration that emphasizes community, giving and optimism as a way to mark cycles of the calendar.

And you don’t need to be Chinese or of Asian heritage to benefit from Lunar New Year traditions and activities, including eating great food with family members and friends, and thinking deeply about your hopes and desires for the year. In fact, we’d all be better served by embracing a celebration that emphasizes community, giving and optimism as a way to mark cycles of the calendar.

Saturday is the culmination of the 15-day Chinese New Year holiday this year, and major cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago will be holding public celebrations over the weekend to mark the occasion. The festival is based on the completion of the lunisolar calendar (based on observations of moon phases and the solar year), and is celebrated by many other Asian cultures, including in Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Bhutan. Differences in celebrations include the kinds of traditional food, dress, length of festivities, rites and greetings towards elders and family members.

Rather than a fleeting thought of what I can do to better myself in the coming year, my family’s traditions are deeply steeped in mindfulness about how daily choices can have long-term impact. Some of the edicts I was instructed to follow to achieve that focus might seem silly, but they were effective when I was growing up. For instance, we weren’t supposed to clean the house or wash our hair during the first two days of the new year to avoid “sweeping away” the good luck that comes at that time. And tradition says the third day of the year is when it’s easy to get into arguments with other people, so you should avoid going out. It’s also customary to wear new clothes, new shoes, new pajamas and put fresh sheets on the bed on the first day of Chinese New Year.

And as fun as it can be to stay up drinking and partying until the wee hours of New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year celebrations offer opportunities for deeper interactions and connection with loved ones. Across the days of the holiday, large meals with relatives and friends are held. It’s easy to get caught up In the rush of career and day-to-day life, so these gatherings are also great reminders of what’s really important.

A new year is also a time to think about financial goals, spending habits, what money can help you accomplish in the short and long-term, as well as the importance of generosity towards others. There are several Chinese New Year traditions focused on addressing these topics.

For instance, married members of Chinese families should distribute lucky money to younger relatives. These brightly colored red-and-gold packets, known as “lai see” in Cantonese, are filled with crisp new bills — often ordered specially from the bank. My family also gives them to people they appreciate, such as their favorite staff at restaurants and other service workers.

The red envelopes are to be accepted with both hands (one hand is considered a sign of disrespect). But in order to receive them and the good luck they bring, I have to memorize and recite customary phrases of hopes for the new year to say to the giver, including auspicious wishes about good health, academic performance and prosperity. For extra good luck, my mother gives my younger sister and me an additional red packet with a five-dollar bill for placing in our beds underneath our pillows. I only recently learned the folk tale that inspired this tradition was centered around a kind of small demon, and came with the belief that the money helped ward off evil spirits and protected the recipient from illness and death.

When my mom was young, she used her lucky money to also buy simple indulgences like Kit Kat bars and movies, activities she was otherwise not able to afford. “The movie theaters would be packed,” my mom recounted. Learning about this reminded me that happiness doesn’t always require a lot of money, even if my Instagram feed constantly feels like it’s filled with photos of people on opulent vacations.

The small financial gestures inspire a sense of optimism about the year ahead and permission to dream of better things during a season when the weather can be tough.

For me, the small financial gestures inspire a sense of optimism about the year ahead and permission to dream of better things during a season when the weather can be tough. Even if you don’t partake in the tradition of giving and receiving “lai-see,” you can be similarly generous through donations to charities and your efforts to help others.

Correspondingly, the simple dishes of Chinese New Year can help remind me of the benefits of eating more modestly after the large meals, parties and platters of desserts on offer during the winter holidays. Traditional treat boxes and Chinese staple dishes like steamed lettuce and shiitake mushrooms taught me New Year celebrations don’t have to be lavish to be festive.

I will carry these lessons with me into the coming months, grateful that my second New Year’s encourages me to be optimistic for the future, to make the effort to see my friends and relatives and to be grateful for my family, my health and my life.