On Feb. 16, cultural educator Yvonne Liu Wolf treated the Levy Lecture crowd to a fun, interesting, and culturally relevant webinar on the Lunar New Year and celebration. She explained the lunar calendar and how that determines when each new year holiday begins, in what countries it is celebrated and by whom, how it is celebrated, and how others can participate in the celebration.
The Lunar New Year (also called the Chinese New Year by many) is a non-religious holiday that celebrates and welcomes spring. It is celebrated all over the world, in Asian countries with Chinese-speaking populations, Asian countries with non-Chinese speaking populations, and in non-Asian countries with large Asian populations in urban centers. Countries as diverse as France, Peru, Australia, and Indonesia all have communities that celebrate the Spring Festival, another common moniker.
The symbolism of the celebration is based on the concept of Yin and Yang: warm spring energy (Yang) is pushing out the cold winter energy (Yin). To embody warm spring energy, it is customary to wear warm colors like red, orange, persimmon, crimson, fuchsia, and yellow. Families give children small gifts of money in red envelopes — another sign of warmth, blessings, and good fortune. Doorways are decorated with flowers to welcome spring. There are dragon dances and lion dances to watch — sometimes as competitions between teams — to “flush out the bad energy of the past and bring in the new spring energy,” Ms. Wolf said.
Of course, families and friends gather together to share lots of good food, and they give and eat oranges as a sign of good luck — and another way to incorporate the warm colors of spring into a family’s celebration.
Another important part of the Lunar New Year celebration is welcoming the new zodiac animal, which this year is the Year of the Ox. Ms. Wolf emphasized that there are no bad animals. Each animal of the zodiac has important traits for people to emulate. Additionally, there is a relationship between the traits of the preceding year’s animal and the traits of the incoming year’s animal.
Ms. Wolf explained how as one year ends and another one begins, the unique energy of the old? year is displaced with the new energy of the incoming year. The year that just concluded was the Year of the Rat. For those wondering what positive traits rats could have that anyone would want to emulate, Ms. Wolf explained, rats are known for being very smart, good planners, resourceful (the word ‘packrat’ relates to saving or hoarding many seemingly unnecessary items), and being able to take many small steps in order to reach a goal.
Celebrating the positive traits of the ox, means embracing the characteristics of fortitude, hard work, perseverance, pushing on, and moving forward. As one year rolls into the next, small steps taken in the Year of the Rat are replaced with bigger, bolder steps in the Year of the Ox. This year is the time to put all the plans made during the prior year into action, working hard to achieve results and reach goals. While the ox is a beast of burden, one not known for being smart, it also does not think too much – it just digs in to get the job done.
The lions and dragons celebrated in elaborate dances are very positive, mythical animals in Asian culture. Both are recognized for chasing away bad energy and are welcome additions to any Lunar New Year celebration.
Dragons are usually “worn” by teams of people who learn how to move and dance in a unified way, often as part of a larger competition for the best, most acrobatic and elaborate dance steps. Lions are usually worn by teams of two and are frequently hired for smaller venues where a dragon team would not be able to move comfortably. Both are equally valued, culturally significant, and celebrated.
The nearly 300 people attending the Levy Center webinar were overwhelmingly delighted to learned about the Lunar New Year. Ms. Wolf encouraged her audience to join in the celebration in a variety of ways, such as ordering Chinese food, wearing any article of clothing in a warm color, giving small gifts of cash in red envelopes, watching lion and dragon dances on YouTube, or making origami oxen. Ms. Wolf also taught the audience to say Happy New Year in Mandarin: “Gong Xi Fa Cai,” which is pronounced phonetically as “Gong-she-fa-tsai.” Each of these activities is a way of welcoming Spring and shooing Winter away, something most of the country can relate to right now.
An encore presentation of Ms. Wolf’s webinar is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.