Why we celebrate the Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year began February 1 and concludes 15 days later. My grandmother was born and raised in Shanghai. She attended a British boarding school. Raising a biracial family in the United States in the 1950s brought its challenges and the goal of the time was assimilation. We were not culturally Chinese, except on those days when we went to Chinese restaurants. Then we knew to eat family style; and when we poured our green tea, we took it plainly, no cream or sugar added. And once a year, there was talk of Chinese New Year, and a question of whether or not to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or San Jose to celebrate it.

We did one year, but not again. Still, there was talk of it.

Bringing the new year in

Chinese New Year decorations

Three or four years ago, we began to observe the Lunar New Year in our home as a way to celebrate my grandmother and offer her the gift of something old and familiar, though naturally in a distinctly Chinese-American way. I learned more of the traditions from storybooks and educational books than from the source, but the heart of it is one we can all understand.

At the heart of the Lunar New Year is a reunion.

Family comes together. Lucky money is given to youngsters enclosed in bright red envelopes, decorated with gold lettering. The feast is spread with symbolic foods. Wishes of a happy and fortunate new year are shared. I wear the jade necklace my mother gave me and the gold earrings my grandmother gave me in the days when I invited myself to stay the night at her house in Modesto, rather than drive home between work shifts. We ate and watched old movies. She told me about the old days in China, the days of employment and dances, the days of office work and flirtations, the days of the war, the days of leaving home and the strangely new and foreign days with an unfamiliar Greek-German family in the United States.

Chinese New Year joins a list of celebrations in our house, one more festivity for my children to anticipate, prepare for, and delight in. There may be children of mine who hold little connection to that Chinese heritage. There may be children of mine who have few, if any, memories of the woman for whom we began these celebrations. But they will know we celebrate. They may ask why we celebrate.

And when they do, their older brothers and sisters will tell them the story:

“Mommy’s grandmother was from China. She came here when the Communists took over. She married an American and all the Americans had to get out. The rest of her family had to stay behind.”

The week and a half before Lunar New Year, there were so many interruptions, so many commitments, so many important meetings and visits, and so many responsibilities.

“I thought you might cancel”

my mother said when we gathered that night.

My children sat around the table as their great-grandmother coached them on how to use chopsticks. After she wrote out the Chinese words for “Happy New Year” phonetically (“gung hai phat choy”), I asked her to teach us to count in Cantonese. She counted briskly three times and then moved on.

We ate recipes new and old, homemade, from the frozen aisle, and taken-out from Hughson Asian Kitchen. The imperfections did not matter.

Chinese Almond Cookies

At the heart of it was the thing mattered.

A new year full of hope.

An old year capped with gratitude.

In the center of it all



Gung hay fat choy 

wishing you great happiness and prosperity

Happy New Year!

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Spring Traditions

The temperatures make their great climb up and down between 35° and 65° in these early days of California spring. One, two, three, four daffodils bloom in the garden with two more on the way. I clip and cut and take the first of spring’s beauty indoors, displacing the winter decor, forgetting the calendar, the fireplace, and whatever thoughts remained of observing winter traditions any longer. With the tall bearded iris Halloween Halo making her debuting the garden, who can focus any longer on the meditative silence of winter?

Early spring bloom: Halloween Halo Iris by Schreiner's Iris Garden

Out come the seed trays.

I dust off my flower stand, open a graph paper notebook of and cover my office desk with seed packets, sliding the typewriter aside to make more space. Lunch break lasts a little longer as I order garden replacements seed starting supplies. My husband and I walk the field estimating where to put the overflowing abundance, now that the backyard is nearly full of perennials and dahlias.

With a proper plan, nearly 75 new varieties will find a home, hopefully with multiples of each. Of particular interest are those inclined to resist the plagues of our soil and the general atmosphere and thrive under the sun, wrapped in its heat, thriving in sandy soil and meager water.

More visions of spring come into view as the skies clear, revealing the pure blue we see only this time of year before the fires start. The earth still retains evidence of the last rainfall or wet, foggy morning. 

Lunar New Year begins February 1.

We celebrate with my grandmother who arrived here from China on Christmas Eve when the Communists took over in 1949. This year we’re exploring recipes from TheWoksofLife.com, a website we found while watching “Family Dinner” on the Magnolia Network. 

Valentine’s Day falls, as ever, on February 14.

Valentine's Day Card

This holiday, once a romantic fete for us, has made itself over as a day for children to show their love and affection to others with cute cards, conversation hearts and lollipops. Often I make the cards on Canva.com download, print and cut them myself, rather than buy something store-bought or spend hours crafting individually.

A deep dive into Lent must be preceded by festively partaking in Marti Gras, also called Fat Tuesday.

It needn’t be raucous, but a time to lay in the merriment with a King Cake, beads, masks, and New Orleans Jazz. We recommend the album “Save my Soul” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for that one. Happily, Spotify makes exploring new music easier than ever.

And then Lent begins.

Custom wood sacrifice beads by St. Therese Art Shop on Etsy

For something new, I purchased “sacrifice beads” from StTheresesArtShop on Etsy. It’s an old practice St. Therese of Lisieux describes in which children can use a string of beads to count their good deeds or sacrifices. In the past, we’ve also set out a jar they can fill with beans whenever they make some sacrifice or good deed. The beans transform to jelly beans on Easter morning as a sign of how our small, but good deeds are transformed into something lovely by God.

Lent gives way to Easter in all its jubilant celebration.

Easter baskets, egg hunts, hymns, lilies and a grand feast follow accordingly.

All these give special focus to the season in its time.

Our memories grow stronger as we return year after year to these traditions. The children remember the years before and anticipate the years to come.

In the unexpected warmth of a January sun, I anticipate, I plan, I prepare. The winter books give way to Chinese legends and books about the New Year; the mantle gives way to vases and lively spring colors; and instead of looking back, I look ahead

to spring.