Year of the Ox: How Chamblee Students Celebrated Lunar New Year

Henry Diep and Allison Lvovich

Lunar New Year is undoubtedly one of the most important Asian holidaysparticularly in East Asiacelebrated by people all across the globe. Marking the beginning of the lunar calendar based on moon cycles, it is a cultural celebration that starts either in late January or early February and is filled with joy, particularly with the means of food, family, and tradition.

This year’s Lunar New Year marked the beginning of the Year of the Ox on the Chinese zodiac calendar, which is a 12-year periodic sequence of 12 different animals.

Traditionally, this holiday is an annual fifteen-day festival and is most commonly celebrated in East Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and Korea (or by people whose culture or ethnicity originate in these countries). Today, however, it is a holiday that is celebrated all over the Western world due to globalization, which is why you see many Lunar New Year festivals and celebrations in America.

Lunar New Year is characterized by many traditional celebrations whose origins are steeped in legends and folklore. For example, one Chinese legend states that thousands of years ago, a monster named Nian would attack villagers at the beginning of every year. The monster had a fear of loud noises and bright colorsparticularly the color redwhich villagers used to chase the monster away. To this day, the holiday is still celebrated with firecrackers and red decorations.

There’s no one definite way to celebrate Lunar New Year; a lot of families celebrate in slightly different ways with their own unique traditions. For Victor Lim (’21), Lunar New Year means seeing friends and family, along with greeting adults and receiving gifts.

“Usually, we would visit our friends, we’d all wear red clothing, and we’d all greet each other with Chinese New Year greetings,” said Lim. “As kids, we would greet the adults and they’d give us red envelopes, which usually have money, so that’s basically my payday.”

These red envelopes, also known as “red pockets,” symbolize good wishes and fortune for the coming year and are a staple tradition of Lunar New Year.

“At the end of the night, the adults give the kids red pockets [“hong bao” in Mandarin] that is filled with lucky money,” said Anna Zhai (’23), whose family is Chinese. “Before we receive the money, we send good words to our elders. This year, since our grandparents would not come visit us, my family and I sent them videos of us sending our gratitude instead.”

A lot of effort goes into preparation before the actual New Year’s celebration. This can include cleaning up the house as a tradition for good luck heading into the year, hanging up decorations, preparing the feasts, and much more.

“Typically for Lunar New Year, we would cook up a nice traditional meal and meet up with my aunt and cousins’ families to have a nice family dinner togetherthis is during New Year’s Eve [and] not the actual New Year’s day,” said Zhai. “Before the New Year arrived, we decorated our house and front door with decorations called [Chunlian], or spring festival couplets in English. Those are supposed to bring luck and fortune.”

However, amidst the global pandemic, some plans for this year took a turn.

“This year, we [still] celebrated with my aunt’s family and some of our cousins. Our grandparents were not with us this year because of COVID and travel restrictions, but we still talked to them over the phone, which was great,” said Zhai.

The inability to be with family appears to be a common theme among this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations, but it did not stop families from celebrating altogether.

“Since COVID hit, we couldn’t go out and get food or groceries [that] we usually get,” said Emily Sharpe (’23). “My family in Thailand couldn’t get together with all their friends in the neighborhood and have a big dinner. My mom and I decided to instead just light some incense and pray before eating a smaller dinner together with dessert.”

However, COVID did limit the grandiosity of some of the traditions.

“We […] usually have a bunch of dinner parties but it’s a lot different this year,” said Lim. “With COVID, we didn’t really visit anyone, and the only money I got was from my parents.”

The Lunar New Year itself represents the beginning of spring, and the start of a new year according to the lunar calendar. Traditionally, the holiday is a time to honor household and heavenly deities as well as ancestors. This customarily brings a family feast including fish, dumplings, spring rolls, and much more.

“Our family usually makes dumplings, but there’s a lot of food you can make during the Chinese New Year,” said Lim. “My grandparents in Malaysia prepare a whole feast of absolutely everything.”

Dumplings, which symbolize wealth during Chinese New Year, are also a staple for Zhai’s family during this time of the year.

“For food we [eat] all kinds of traditional Chinese dishes like dumplings, […] roast duck, and a hot pot,” she said. “My favorite is the hot pot because there’s so much you can eat from it. You can cook pretty much anything in the hot pot and it tastes amazing.”

Sharpe, whose family on her mother’s side is from Thailand, eats a wide range of foods from different countries all over Asia during the New Year.

“We eat a variety of foods like pad Thai or Mongolian beef with rice,” said Sharpe. “My favorite food would be the mooncakes my mom gets at the farmers market.”

Food and prayer often go hand in hand during the celebrations.

“My mom and I would usually order food from our local Chinese or Vietnamese stores. We would set up a table with chairs, and plates for each person who has passed [away] but will visit for dinner,” said Sharpe. “We light incense and my mom or I would put rice on each plate and pour some drinksusually alcoholinto a cup for each person. We then would take a turn kneeling down and doing a wai and praying for good fortune.”

In general, Chinese New Year has a theme of bringing people together who may not be able to meet in person.

“For me, Chinese New Year is a great time to talk to family. We always Skype our family in Malaysia,” said Lim. “Whenever we do the season greetings, it’s always ‘happy New Year’ or ‘good health to you,’ so it’s a fun time.”