Ushering in the Chinese New Year, the BYU Chinese Flagship hosted a celebration with traditional decorations, games and food.
PROVO, Utah (February 6, 2015)—Amidst the typical Friday night pizza parties and ward get-togethers, the Wilkinson Center’s weekend festivities took a Chinese turn.
Students bustled in for the BYU Chinese Flagship’s Chinese New Year celebration, complete with a traditional dragon, calligraphy, a photo booth in front of the Great Wall and, of course, Chinese food.
The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, to be celebrated this year on February 19th, is the most significant social and traditional holiday in China. Because the Chinese lunar calendar determines on which day the holiday falls, the day of celebration changes from year to year. But regardless of the day: “every Chinese kid – and probably every Chinese adult – looks forward to it,” said Matthew Christensen, professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and director of BYU’s Chinese Flagship Center. “It’s like Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July all in one.”
In China, celebrations around the New Year last around a month. School calendars revolve around the holiday, and students usually take off two weeks before the New Year and remain on break for two weeks after the New Year. The beginning of China’s spring semester doesn’t start until the end of the New Year celebrations.
“During the New Year, there’s really nobody around,” Christensen said. “Everybody, all over the country, goes back to their family. They have big meals and celebrate all together.”
Leading up to the celebration there is a general “spring cleaning.” People freshen up their homes, many buy new clothes and the sense is that one turns over a new leaf before the onset of a new year.
The eve of the New Year is the main event, and, according to Wu Xinyi, an instructor of Chinese from Mainland China, people usually stay home and have a big dinner with family members. In the northern part of China, the main dish is pot stickers or dumplings. In the southern part of China, it’s all about communal hot pot. Most areas prepare meat and fish dishes. The fish is usually not completely consumed, and the leftovers are stored for the next day. “There has to be something left over,” Wu Xinyi said, in order to symbolize surpluses every year.
A contemporary tradition for most Chinese families is to watch a nationally broadcast Spring Festival Gala, which is always shown on New Year’s Eve. “It’s a huge variety show with celebrities and singing and dancing, traditional as well as modern,” Christensen said. The show runs until midnight or a bit later, and then everyone watches the fireworks.
The giving of “red envelopes” is one of the most exciting (and lucrative) traditions for kids and adolescents. Married people or people with established jobs give unmarried people and children red envelopes, usually filled with cash.
“Red, of course, symbolizes prosperity and good luck,” Christensen said. “It’s a really auspicious color in Chinese culture. Parents and grandparents give children a red envelope with ‘lucky money.’ Kids sometimes make out very well, and they make a lot of money!”
Kids often learn to say ritualistic traditional phrases, such as “happiness and prosperity in the New Year,” “surplus year after year,” “good fortune according to your wishes” and “may fortune smile upon you.”
Flagship faculty member Rita Chen, who is from Taiwan, said, “When we are little, we usually go up to all of our relatives and say some phrases that will make them happy, and then they will give us a red envelope.”
The Flagship’s celebration brought together native Chinese students and Chinese-speaking students not from China. They played games, ate food and celebrated the culture of Spring Festival.
The rich celebration of a year gone by and the anticipation of year yet to come is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and even if you’re far from home—it’s a holiday for family, food and tradition.
The Chinese Flagship sponsors two holiday celebrations each year: the Moon Festival and the Chinese New Year. To learn more about BYU’s Chinese Flagship Program, visit their website.
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)