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Lutherans & Lunar New Year

新年快樂 (Sun Nin Fai Lok) - Happy New Year! 恭喜發財 (Gung Hay Fat Choy) – wishing you prosperity and joy! Today, February 1st, marks the Lunar New Year and beginning of a two-week long celebration as our many of our siblings of Asian heritage close out 2021 and welcome 2022. We spoke with Marisa Louie Lee and David Lam and Kimberly Hamilton-Lam, members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco, about this holiday and how their Chinese American families gather and celebrate, and the connection the Lunar New Year has to their Lutheran faith.

What is the Lunar New Year?

The Lunar New Year is a time for individuals to conclude the year behind them and open the new year ahead. Lunar New Year follows the Lunar Calendar, which was meant to mirror the cyclical season of the farmland, as the majority of people in China relied on farming for their livelihood. Thus, all major holidays center around the farm workers and agriculture industry. When the Lunar New Year came each year, it was historically a time where farm workers took a rest from being in the fields and spent time with loved ones welcoming in the new year.

The Lunar Calendar is represented by a different animal each year, with 12 animals total, that represents the year ahead. 2022 will be the year of the Water Tiger - representing strength and action, being known to ward-off evils.

There is much preparation that goes into the Lunar New Year! Checkbooks are balanced, houses are deep-cleaned, special foods must be purchased and prepared, fresh flowers put on display in the home, and red envelopes to be filled. When the Lunar New Year comes, the festivities begin! Much of the season is devoted to spending time with close and distant relatives, exchanging gifts, and serving “lucky” foods - such as fish, dumplings, peanuts, and dates. The Lunar New Year is also a time when many honor ancestors who have passed away and pay respect to those who came before them.

How do Marisa Louie Lee and her family celebrate the Lunar New Year?

Marisa grew up in the city of San Francisco with the rich history of Lunar New Year celebrations on her doorstep. She attended a Lutheran school growing up and later joined St. Mark’s, who has since seen her through major milestones of her adult life, like the birth and baptisms of her two young daughters. She comes from a multi-generational Chinese-American family who holds deep ties to the Bay Area and its Lunar New Year traditions. Since marrying her husband Gilbert – also of Chinese American heritage - her celebration of the Lunar New Year have become all the richer and culturally traditional.

When many Lutherans are winding down from the Holidays on Epiphany, Marisa and her family are just gearing up! As mentioned above, the preparations for the Lunar New Year are quite grand. Marisa shares that just as we prepare for the Christmas season during Advent, she prepares for the Lunar New Year in the weeks leading up. The anticipation of the holiday builds and the home is prepared - foods are purchased and prepared, deep-cleaning that may only happen this time of year begins, small red envelopes or 利是 (lai see) of money are prepared by married couples to be given to the children and unmarried adults, and time is created in the family’s schedule to be with relatives.

It is traditional for families to gather twice over the Lunar New Year season - once to close out the year and again a week or two later to welcome and open the new year! Throughout these two weeks, food is readily prepared – or purchased from a favorite restaurant – and the home is open to welcome guests and loved ones. In San Francisco, the end of Lunar New Year is typically celebrated with the historic Parade. The Parade dates back to the 1850s and is said to be the largest Lunar New Year parade outside of China! Marisa shares that this parade brings her a special sense of joy, as she knows that the parade she delights in this year with her family is the part of the same tradition her parents enjoyed as young children growing up in San Francisco. Learn more about the parade, happening on February 19th, here:

How do David Lam and Kimberly Hamilton-Lam celebrate the Lunar New Year?

David and Kimberly Hamilton-Lam are San Francisco natives and have fond memories of gathering with family and loved ones around the Lunar New Year season. David, a second-generation Chinese-American, holds fond memories of growing up in Chinatown and walking from place to place taking in the sights and smells of the holiday, and of course receiving a few red envelopes.

"During the New Year celebration, which lasts for 15 days, our home will have lots of citrus, including tangerines and pomelos. We will also decorate with red lanterns and cherry blossom branches. One highlight of the celebration is to watch a Lion Dance presentation, this is one of our childrens' favorite parts of the Lunar New Year," Kimberly shares.

Just as Marisa and her family gather with family far and wide, so do Kimberly and David.

"Over 70 people of at least 4 generations work their calendar to make sure they attend the gathering. It's the one time the whole extended family gathers. We eat an assortment of traditional Chinese food and each family passes out red envelopes to all the children. It has been very sad that we have not been able to gather this way during the pandemic and we look forward to returning to this tradition soon," Kimberly writes.

How does Marisa’s Lutheran faith intersect with her Chinese heritage and the Lunar New Year?

As mentioned above, Marisa draws many ties between the Advent season and the Lunar New Year season. A time of anticipation, a time spent preparing to be with friends and family, and a time to welcome newness into your home.

Marisa and her family have also found ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their church community at St. Mark’s! She and her husband give red envelopes to some of the children at St. Mark’s, and when Marisa’s daughters were born, those families began reciprocating the gift to her children. She shares that this thoughtful act is meaningful as those families go to the effort of purchasing the traditional red envelopes and preparing these gifts at this time of the year. The gift of receiving good fortune and a blessing from her church community through sharing red envelopes continues to be a special interaction of Marisa’s cultural heritage and faith.

How can you honor the Lunar New Year this year?

As with holidays that are not historically celebrated by the heritage of which we are from, it is always important to first learn about the Lunar New Year and its rich history and significance in communities that observe it. Marisa encourages those who wish to learn more about the Lunar New Year to ask people of Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean heritage in your community about the holiday and how their family celebrates. If you are located in a community that holds public celebrations and events for the Lunar New Year, Marisa encourages you to attend the celebrations to acknowledge and appreciate the traditions of the holiday.

Kimberly and David also share that it's important to visit your nearby Chinatown and look past the touristy elements. Peek into the local grocery stores and butcher shops, marvel at the beautiful hand-crafted decor, and perhaps stumble upon a traditional Lion Dance!

To all who celebrate and honor the Lunar New Year, we wish you abundance, health, and good fortune on the year ahead!

Marisa shares these resources for learning more about how those of Chinese American heritage celebrate Lunar New Year:

  • The book Good Luck Life by Rosemary Gong ( similarly reflects Marisa’s Cantonese Chinese American family's traditions and celebrations. In addition to Lunar New Year, Gong’s book also discusses traditions around weddings, new babies, and funerals, and many other Chinese festivals celebrated throughout the year.

  • The food blog Woks of Life is one of her favorite online resources - predominantly for recipes but also for cultural celebrations! Here's their starting point for Lunar New Year:

We encourage you to learn more about the Lunar New Year here:

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