Lunar New Year: It's all about family

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

by Maria Nakae

Decorations & red envelopes
Last Saturday, my husband and I hosted a big party to celebrate Lunar New Year, which began this past Thursday – the first full moon of the year. This annual tradition, started by my husband (whose mother is Taiwanese and father was Chinese) years before we met, was a 10-hour celebration preceded by a full day of making handmade dumplings. Every year we make over 500 dumplings and after the party, even after we send some home with our friends, we are still eating dumplings for the next week. Yum.

When I was growing up, my family celebrated New Years on January 1, since Japan follows the Gregorian calendar (blame it on Western imperialism, I suppose). My mom would cook an elaborate feast featuring snapper (representing good luck), and my brother and dad would fight over who got to eat the eyeballs (which I always thought was kind of gross).

For my friends from Laos and Cambodia, on the other hand, their New Year falls in mid-April. Traditionally, this is the end of harvesting season and before the rainy season begins, families come together, rest, and enjoy the fruits of their harvest.

But despite the differences in traditions, time of year, and adaptations by U.S.-raised generations, all Asian New Year celebrations have one thing in common: it’s all about family. And, of course, food.

In most Asian cultures, the New Year is a time for families to come together and reaffirm our bonds. By paying respect to our elders, honoring our ancestors, and sharing wealth and prosperity with younger generations (gotta love those red envelopes!), the traditions of the New Year strengthen our families by tying together past, present and future generations and help us remember that we are only here because of those who came before us.

Fresh batch of homemade dumplings
And what better way to give thanks and honor your loved ones than to cook and share traditional and meaningful food? My friend Lily, whose family is Chinese Burmese and who has a huge extended family in San Francisco, told me “it's a humbling and strengthening experience to be part of a family/cultural tradition that has preceded me by many generations. It helps me feel a sense of connection with the continuum of life and interconnectedness.”

Well said. And food is such an essential way to feel connected to our families and cultures. Back in Japan on the tiny island where my mom grew up, my extended family would gather at my grandfather’s house on New Year’s Day. My uncles, grandpa, and dad would take turns pounding rice to make mochi and my mom, grandma and aunties rolled them into balls. They would also make special kagami mochi, a small mochi disk on top of a larger one with an orange on the very top, stem and leaf intact. The two mochi discs symbolize the departure of the old year and coming of the new, and the orange symbolizes the continuation of a family from generation to generation. Mochi making is always such a fun activity involving the whole family. As a small child, being too young and not having hands nimble enough to roll the mochi as fast as the adults did, my job was to watch, learn and eat. To this day, I am a sucker for freshly made mochi that is so soft and warm that it just melts in your mouth. These days my mom has a machine that pounds the mochi, but rolling it and eating it fresh while sitting and chatting with my mom is still one of my favorite things to do.

As our families get increasingly busy, many of us are no longer able to make all of our traditional New Years food from scratch. But that doesn’t mean the act of coming together to eat it is any less special. When Lily’s family doesn’t have time or energy to prepare food at home, they sometimes go out for a family dinner. Regardless, it’s the meaning and intention that’s important: coming together and valuing time to be with one another, sharing a meal, and remembering the significance and collective energy of their family’s unity.

Tram & nieces reading a New Years story
For those of us who were raised in the U.S., traditions have definitely evolved. In Vietnam, before coming to the U.S. in 1990, my friend Tram and her family would celebrate New Years with extended family, neighbors, and the entire village…literally. “Hundreds of people would come in and out of our house on the days of the celebration,” she told me. She misses the village-wide festivities but, just as much, “I appreciate and treasure the modified celebrations we do have in our new adopted country.”

These days, it’s mostly just her immediate family that gets together, but the significance remains the same. They get together, cook, and eat a lot of food that has special meaning, like watermelon, which they associate with Lunar New Year because of its red color (symbolizing good luck) and its many seeds (symbolizing plentiful children). One of her favorite things about the New Year is that every year around this time the cherry blossom tree in her parents’ yard blooms. Her dad picks out a few branches and arranges it in their house. Cherry blossoms are also a big part of the New Year for Lily’s family as well. Her eldest sister gives her parents cherry blossom branches, which represent new growth, vitality, and brightness.
Me & my friend Trang

Regardless of how long our families have lived in the States, for those of us who hold dear our cultural traditions, I think that New Years will always be centered around family and be one of the most important and meaningful times of the year. And as we and our families grow and change, so do our traditions. This year, Tram began a new tradition with her nieces of creating paper decorations with New Year-themed designs that they turned into cards to send to relatives. In the same way that people gather around food, crafting helped gather her family members around the table for something that everyone can participate in, including her youngest niece, who is four.

In the future, Lily plans to continue the tradition of sharing food, prayer, and gathering with loved ones but wants to extend the gathering to chosen family in addition to birth family. I think this is a great idea, and something that my husband and I have begun doing as well. The Chinese word for “everyone” (da jia in Mandarin) literally translates to “big family.” And when we have our annual Lunar New Year party we celebrate it with our big family – those who are related to us by blood, our close friends whom we consider family, and those who are just beginning to join our family circle.

Our friends, a.k.a "big family"
No matter how we celebrate, the New Year is all about family. In the beautiful words of my wise friend Lily: “It's a time for sharing and appreciating life. It's a time to honor elders, ancestors and gods. It's a time to reflect, meditate, and pray.”

Here’s to you and your family. May you have strength, happiness and prosperity in this new year and all the years to come.

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