Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Year's traditions vary from country to country, culture to culture

Feasting: a part of any good New Year celebration.
So we have now entered the Year of the Monkey, with the Chinese or Lunar New Year having taken place last weekend.

It's at a different time of the year from the standard North American New Year, which is set on January 1 of the Gregorian Calendar, and the traditions are also very different.

There are similarities, of course. Music, food - LOTS of food! - and dance seem to play large roles in most new year celebrations. However, while in Canada, New Year's Eve tends to involve partying and and New Year's Day a family dinner (often planned around football bowl games on TV!) Chinese New Year's celebration even in Vancouver is very much more a family event. Traditional Chinese foods and family gatherings are still a big part of the day in many Chinese families in Vancouver. Of course, there's also the big New Year's Day parade in the city's Chinatown district. I've attended that, and it's always very colourful and plenty of fun.

I'm usually at home that time of the year, so we usually mark the occasion by cooking an Asian meal of some sort, and watching a movie with some kind of Chinese/Asian theme, sometimes even a show that has the theme of whatever animal that year is (monkey, tiger, dragon, etc.)

However, I have also been fortunate enough to celebrate New Year in Thailand. There, it's called Songkran, and it takes place in the first half of April. Again, it involves feasting, music, dance, and general celebration.

One of the interesting "traditions" that has evolved there the last several years is the use of super-soaker squirt guns to soak revellers...or even those not partying.

It all started with the Buddhist practice of sprinkling a blessing of water on someone's head when they enter a home or other area that's engaged in Songkran celebration. Somewhere, one year, someone got the idea squirting people with super soaker water guns was quicker. Now during the days leading up to the celebration, you risk getting soaked by strangers wherever you venture. (If you're a traveller with expensive camera gear, you might want to leave it in your hotel room if you want to avoid getting it wet.) Harmless, but sometimes annoying.

When not eating at Songkran, I was busy watching traditional Thai dance.

While I was there, I spent some time wandering around Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's premier temples. In addition to it being famous for its reclining Buddha, this temple is also the go-to place to learn the techniques of Thai massage, and earn certification in the practice.

Within the temple grounds, there was a market with food stalls. I also spent some time in an outdoor area along the Bangkok waterfront, where there were more food stalls (well, I did say there was always plenty of food eaten at new year's celebrations), dance and other artistic and cultural displays.

That's right - more food! Thai fish balls at the temple.
That's the only time I've been out of Canada for a new year's celebration, so my experience is limited to three cultures: Canadian, Chinese (as practised in Canada), and Thai.

I have eaten some East Indian food at a Sikh temple while researching a magazine piece for food on Vaishaki or Baishaki Day, which is the East Indian New Year's Day which takes place in April. But the research was done in November for a spring publication, so that's the closest I've come to "celebrating" Vaishaki (which is also a harvest festival.)

There are many other Asian cultures in Vancouver aside from Chinese, Thai, and East Indian, including Vietnamese. The Vietnamese New Year or Tet Nguyen Dan (Tet for short) is very similar to the Chinese New Year, in that it is also a "lunar" new year.

While the food may be different, the aspect of celebrating by feasting with family is a strong thread in that country's culture - as is the case with Mongolian, Tibetan, Japanese, Korean new year's celebrations. All those cultures use the same basic lunar calendar.

Whatever culture you're in, however and whenever you like to celebrate a new year, I hope the Year of the Monkey is a good one for you.

Gung hay fat choy!

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