New Year’s Celebrations East Meets West

By Evan Yeh

The New Year provides an opportunity for us to see how the cultural ideals of the East and the West play themselves out in these important celebrations. As the first person in my family who has deep ties to China and its culture, but born in the United States, I have a unique perspective on growing up Chinese in the U.S. I’ve seen over the years how these two very different cultures intermingle and find balance points.

Iconic American New Year’s celebration in Times Square. If you look closely, you can see a street performer dressed up as the Statue of Liberty counting his tip money. What a country! Photo credit: Venturelli Luca / Shutterstock.com.

The American ideals of individualism, optimism, and hard-work are on display in it’s New Year’s celebration. The celebration itself is quite short. Although many Americans will choose to take their vacation time over the holidays to create a longer break, officially, only New Year’s Day is considered a holiday. Also, American optimism in on display in the practice of New Year’s resolutions. The idea that no matter what has happened, it is possible for you to wipe the slate clean and set new goals for the future, is decidely American and embodied in the New Year’s celebration.

Traditional Chinese New Year’s celebrations, on the other hand, last over two weeks. And many will tell you as recently as five years ago, the whole country would shut down for a month or longer to accomodate families traveling from far away to spend New Year’s together. Each day has both a symbolic purpose as well as traditional activities surrounding the purpose. The most iconic symbols like firecrackers, loud drums, and lion dancers are associated with the expulsion of bad spirits, a common theme in the first day of celebration activities. Also, the lighting of Lanterns on the 15th day of the first calendar month, as well as the gifting of red envelopes from established married couples to younger kids are also persistent symbols of the Chinese New Year celebration.

Dragon dance performers amidst a shower of fireworks in an iconic Chinese New Year celebration. Photo credit PranStockerRoom / Shutterstock.com

Chinese cultural elements that become embodied in the New Year’s celebration include: the importance of family, the association of food with prosperity, the persistence of superstition, and the honoring of elders. Ironically, as the cultural influence of a more Western lifestyle spreads to China and other parts of Asia, we see the celebrations change. It is now a more common practice in China for professionals to take just a few days off and forego more time intensive family activities in favor of getting away and relaxing from a busy work schedule. Sound familiar?

Regardless of how or when you celebrate the New Year, as a community of artists it is a great time to express the optimism and gratitude associated with the seasons and to set goals for artistic development in the coming year.

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