Imagine living under a tin roof, with no insulation, during a hailstorm. With firecrackers. That’s pretty much what Lunar New Year sounds like. Oh, plus a lion. But don’t worry, that’s good luck.
We have posted before about attending local events as one way of experiencing other cultures. Much like the United States, our little TravelLatte crew is a cultural melting pot which, thankfully, includes the wonderfully colorful and often fiery Vietnamese. (By the way, we mean that both figuratively and literally!) So, with expert guidance, we set out every year to explore and celebrate the biggest holiday in every Asian culture, popularly known as Chinese New Year.
It’s not just Chinese New Year!
I say “popularly known as” because it goes by several names: Spring Festival, Lunar New Year or, in Vietnam’s case, Tết Nguyên Đán, which translates beautifully to Feast of the First Morning of the First Day. It is the most auspicious day on the calendar, and it is celebrated with all of the fanfare and festivity that the Western world associates with New Year, Christmas, and even Thanksgiving, all rolled into one. There are family dinners, parties, gifts, thanks and offerings, ceremonies, and lots of noise and fireworks.
In a Vietnamese family, preparations begin at least a week before the actual holiday. There are banners to hang, gifts to buy, and cooking to do! Plus, the home must be spotless. (In part, because you can’t sweep during the two week festival; you might sweep away good luck!) Friends and family will be visiting for New Year’s Eve, Red Packets filled with Lucky Money are handed around, and we eat like it’s the end of the world. (Seriously, there is usually enough food to feed an army for the rest of the month!)
The Roots of Chinese New Year
The traditional Chinese New Year has its roots in the Shang Dynasty, from the 17th to 11th Century BC. Villagers would start the new year by warding off evil beasts, Nian, who lived under seas or in mountains. They avoided people most of the year but, around the new year, a Nian might come out of hiding and attack a village, eating children and livestock. Nian had two weaknesses though: they did not like loud noise, and they were frightened by the color red. So, naturally, villagers would dress in red and make as much noise as possible, banging pots, pans and plates, and setting off firecrackers. That colorful, noisy tradition has survived into our 21st century in the form of the Lion Dance. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Modern Lunar New Year
The festival itself has grown from a noisy band of villagers chasing off a menacing monster into a week (or two) long celebration to welcome a new year. Thankfully, Chinese New Year hasn’t been fully commercialized in the U.S. the way Oktoberfest and Cinco de Mayo have, and it’s possible to find authentic celebrations anywhere Asian families gather. Around our home base in north Texas, we visit the beautiful Chua Huong Dao temple in Fort Worth before going to several shopping centers that serve as cultural hubs for goods and entertainment. During Tet, they explode in a joyous jumble of color and cacophony that can leave the uninitiated wondering what just happened.
Shopping centers – the modern equivalent of festival grounds – are draped in red and yellow, the colors of happiness, luck, wealth, love and celebration. Events begin early with a blessing from local monks, and many opportunities to spend your Red Packet money on delicious, home-made foods and treats, handcrafted decorations, or a well-received donation to the Monks in exchange for blessings. As you would expect, there are singers and musicians, and daring demonstrations from local martial arts students.
The Lion Dance
The highlight is the Mua Lan, or Lion Dancing. Adapted from the Chinese Lion Dance, the Vietnamese version is often called a Unicorn Dance. The Vietnamese Lan appears as an animal resembling a dragon with a lion’s mane and a unicorn horn. It is the symbol of strength and comes, accompanied by drums, gongs, and the Earth spirit Ong Dia as his guide, to scare away evil spirits. (On a practical note, one thing I’ve learned after attending several celebrations is to bring ear plugs. Remember, all this noise has to be loud enough to scare away evil spirits, so it gets very noisy.)
It is good luck to feed the unicorns (who eat money!) as they parade through the crowd before visiting their benefactors to bestow blessings for the new year. For the grand finale, the dancers gather before the entrance to the sponsor’s business, where lettuce or cabbage is hung to tempt the unicorn. In an amazing display of acrobatics, the dancers climb and stretch to take the bait, and leave blessings in return, while strings of firecrackers ward off any evil spirits.
After the Mua Lan, we generally go eat (more) and linger in the shops and stalls just in case there’s a New Year decoration we overlooked, like the beautiful golden Year of the Goat statuette I nearly missed! Filled with good spirits, good blessings, and amazing food, we leave every New Year celebration looking forward to the year ahead…and to the next celebration!
See more from Tet in Texas in our Lion Dance Gallery!
Lunar New Year generally falls between January 20 and February 20 on the Gregorian calendar, and is usually well advertised in stores, churches and temples in areas with large Asian populations. A few things to remember: Fighting, breaking things, taking medicine, and crying are all considered bad luck, so try your best to avoid doing any of the above. Red and yellow are the colors of the day. Black is a bad thing, so adjust your wardrobe accordingly. If you’d like to come with gifts, Red Packets (envelopes) filled with “lucky” money is traditional, as are liquor, tea, flowers, and fruit (except for pears). Although you will see them everywhere, some believe Chrysanthemums are unwelcome as they are frequently associated with funerals.
New! Check out the Lunar New Year opening celebrations at Asia Times Square in DFW! (Video courtesy of Asia Times Square.)
We’d love to hear about your experiences at Chinese New Year and other celebrations and cultural events. Just leave us a comment below! And don’t forget you can Pin this post if you want to save it for later, or share it with friends. Thanks!