On Wednesday, the St. Albans and National Cathedral School Lower Schools gathered in the NCS gymnasium for a special chapel service celebrating Lunar New Year.
With students filling up the entire bleachers and overflowing onto the court, the energetic crowd was surrounded by the traditional and beautiful red decorations for the Year of the Tiger that were artfully placed throughout the arena.
As the ceremony began, students roared with applause as an NCS student quartet played “Oshogatsu,” a traditional Japanese Lunar New Year song.
Dozens of students had roles in the ceremony, ranging from introducing the holiday, telling the story of the tiger, and performing traditional music and dance. The program was highlighted by Chinese teacher Rae Weeks and an NCS student in the Lion Dance, while Ted Wang ’28 accompanied them with a drum.
The ceremony concluded with two homilies, one from an NCS student and one from Aneirin Chang ’28, who both shared beautiful personal stories of their families’ celebrations of the holiday.
Enjoy Aneirin’s homily below:
Hi, I’m Aneirin Chang and I’d like to tell you about how my family celebrates the Lunar New Year. The date of the Lunar New Year changes every year because the lunar calendar is based on the moon instead of the sun. The symbols on the calendar change, too, with each year representing one of twelve animals; this year, it’s the Year of the Dragon. But at my house, I know it’s the Lunar New Year without having to look at the calendar. Here are some of the signs.
First, great effort is made into spiffing up our personal appearance. We have to get haircuts, which my brothers and I don’t like but sometimes we are tricked into with the promise that “it’s just a trim!” Boxes arrive on the doorstep with new clothes and sometimes shoes. Second, we have to do spring cleaning, except it’s Lunar New Year cleaning. Third, there’s lots of grocery shopping, and I’m constantly bringing bags in from the car. All of a sudden, the pantry is full with rice noodles, white rabbit candies, hot sauces, red bean pastries, and pineapple cakes, and the refrigerator is jam-packed with dumpling wrappers, beef shanks, mushrooms, bean sprouts, bok choy, and pea shoots.
Special treats from the dim sum restaurant even show up at the house for breakfast, and include roast pork buns, shrimp noodle rolls, turnip cakes, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, and egg tarts. All of these things tell me that the Lunar New Year is here.
These activities are connected to centuries-old traditions meant to bring good luck for the new year. Starting out the year with new and clean things and a fully stocked kitchen clears out any bad luck hanging around and prepares for good luck to enter a house. For generations, families would decorate the house with red and gold banners that say things like “good health,” “prosperity” and “good fortune.” They would burn incense and paper money around portraits of their honored ancestors to ask them for good luck. Before my grandmother’s family fled from China during World War II, they would go to their family burial plot to make sure everything was in top shape. My great-grandmother had portraits of various gods in the house, including a big one of the kitchen god over the stove. She would take honey and smear it over the kitchen god’s mouth right before the Lunar New Year to make sure he didn’t say anything bad about the family to the other gods. There would be dragon dances and firecrackers in the streets because evil spirits were afraid of dragons and loud noises. People also wore red, a lucky color to ward off evil spirits.
Many families still do all of these things in Asia. There, the Lunar New Year is an official holiday where people get over a week off and travel to be with family. Because we don’t get a week off, my family condenses all of our luck-catching into two giant meals. On New Year’s Eve, we eat a special meal called Hot Pot. There is a giant pot of hot water in the middle of the table. We put plates of raw shrimp, scallops, fish, and squid on the table, neatly arranged in rows. The beef, chicken and pork pieces are in paper thin slices and fanned out in the shape of a flower. Then you make your own dipping sauce out of a variety of ingredients. You cook what you want with your chopsticks. It takes a long time to eat hot pot,which is great for catching up with family and for arguing over whose piece of meat is floating around unclaimed in the middle of the pot. It’s like a group project for a meal.
The next day, we have a banquet-style feast, where we eat many symbolic dishes based on homonyms in the Chinese language. For example, the Chinese phrase “may there be surpluses every year” (年年有余; Pinyin: nián nián yǒu yú) sounds the same as “may there be fish every year.” So we will eat a whole fish at dinner and leave a little bit behind to show a “surplus.” My grandmother likes to make 年 糕 -Nián gāo which sounds like the phrase “a high year,” which can mean a higher job position or even the height of your kids. We will also eat a whole chicken, which symbolizes completeness; dumplings, which look like coin purses; noodles, which represent long life because of their length; and oranges for dessert, which look like gold. All of us would be drafted to help cook, including folding over 200 dumplings — another family project.
For many kids, the magic hour begins when the adults give out red envelopes filled with money for good luck, which makes folding all those dumplings worth it. According to an old legend, children were given eight coins wrapped in red paper at night, which would emit a strong light and scare any demons away. Red envelopes must be filled with brand new, crisp bills, as it is considered bad etiquette to give old or wrinkled money. As a child, you feel like a high roller for a few days until your parents make you put the money in a bank account.
My family still continues these traditions the best that we can. It keeps me connected to my family’s heritage, even though we are decades and continents away from where my great-, great-grandparents and ancestors lived. I like keeping these traditions alive in new ways and creating new memories. Traditions evolve over time, so maybe in the future I will be giving out virtual red envelopes like some do now in China. However, no matter how much it evolves or changes, it will always be about spending time with family.