The celebration of new beginnings is a nearly universal characteristic in various global traditions. In China, most citizens celebrate ،春节 (chūnjie), the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. Although the festivities take place over the course of several days, this year, the actual new year began on Jan. 22. Unlike the traditional American new year’s celebration, 春节 (chūnjie) is the most important holiday of the year. The celebration holds an extremely profound cultural significance to many Chinese people.
Popular legends detail the mythic origin of this holiday. Much of the folklore is centered around a beast called 年(Nián), which means year. The giant horned monster would descend from its mountain dwelling once a year to wreak havoc on farms and villages. After years of enduring Nián’s destruction, the villagers discovered the beast was frightened by loud noises, bright lights and the color red. By parading around in monster costumes followed by drums, symbols, gongs and fireworks, the villagers managed to finally banish the beast back to the mountains. Today, many Chinese people continually participate in these customs by holding parades, dance performances, concerts and lining the streets with bright red lanterns.
These Chinese traditions are observed by many Omaha locals. The Nebraska Chinese Association (NCA) hosted a New Year’s Gala on Jan. 28 at the Orpheum Theater. A large troupe of traditional Chinese instrumental and Yue Opera performers from Los Angeles and Heartland of America dazzled Omaha with a show-stopping performance. The music and dance chronicled Asian history through elaborate costumes, vibrant pageantry and expressive music.
On Jan. 23, Marian’s cafe served egg rolls, crab rangoons and fried rice for lunch. Students thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Senior Katie Peklo said, “it was pretty different from our normal lucnches…I liked it.” In Mrs. Wenli Rapkin’s Mandarin classes and World Language Club, students cooked 饺子 (jiao zi), a dumpling traditionally made during the holiday season. Having grown up in China, Rapkin recalls her anticipation for the holiday season. “When I was young, I remember being very excited to visit my grandma because she would give us our red envelope,” she said. During the new year season it is tradition to gift red envelopes (红包, hóngbāo) to children and young adults. The envelopes usually contain money and symbolize good wishes for the upcoming year.
Rapkin also notes how holiday traditions have shifted over the years. “When I was a child we used to receive clothes from our grandparents on the new year, but now people have the money to buy clothes year-round,” Rapkin said. A changing economy has changed the way people celebrate. “Younger generations are starting to travel abroad during the holidays as well,” Rapkin said.
While it is common for people to travel during the season, people traditionally travel to visit relatives. When she lived in China, senior Yifan (Fanny) Jiang would travel five hours from her home in 杭州市 (Hangzhou) to visit with her extended family in 温州市 (Wenzhou). Jiang said, “My cousins and I would stay up all night and watch the new year’s show and my mom would cook a big dinner.”
The sharing of traditions both within the Marian community and the city of Omaha ultimately led to a greater understanding and celebration of Chinese culture and history.