Chinese New Year a Religious Holiday?

As many of you probably already know, this past weekend, and for some this week as well, has been the celebration of the Lunar Chinese New Year. Our family did common New Year activities that many people probably also partake in – visiting a temple, burning paper money for ancestors, gathering for a big family dinner, receiving red envelopes. While scanning through Google Reader this morning, I came across an interesting article titled “Business of Chinese New Year”, featured on the Belief.net website. The article basically talks about how Chinese New Year has become one of Las Vegas’ “most critical holidays”, as vacationers come for gambling, performances, shopping, and even just a short getaway.

While reading the article, what got to me was not the main issue at hand, but rather that the article was posted on Belief.net in the first place. There were no religious/spiritual references in the article nor did they mention anything about how religion plays a role in Chinese New Year. I could not figure out why Belief.net would post such an article, especially since their mission is “to help people like you find, and walk, a spiritual path that will bring comfort, hope, clarity, strength, and happiness”. Unless of course, they assumed Chinese New Year is a religious holiday! Well, is it?

While Chinese New Year does incorporate a lot of spiritual traditions in its celebration, I would not consider it a religious holiday. The purpose of the holiday is to celebrate the coming of a prosperous new year and while many people use spiritual means to grant them a good year, the holiday simply did not arise from any religion or religious purposes.

Reader “nnmns” comments on the Belief.net article, asking “Is Chinese New Year a religious holiday?” To answer his question, he provides an excerpt from Wikipedia about the origins of Chinese New Year and later compares it to Christmas:

“According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian or “Year” in Chinese.Nian would come on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the color red. Hence, every time when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, the Nian never came to the village again. The Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk. The Nian became Hongjun Laozu’s mount.”

I hold no hard feelings against Belief.net. I also have no problem with Belief.net featuring non-religious material on their website. However, in this case, if Chinese New Year was mistaken as a religious holiday, it shows how easily non-Western culture is misunderstood in America even in a time when the Internet makes information readily available. I have found so many instances, religious and secular, where this commonly happens: misinterpreting the word “karma”, misunderstanding Buddha as equivalent to God, confusing Thailand with Taiwan…the list goes on. While I don’t claim to have perfect knowledge of any culture, even my own, I do believe that whenever we get the chance, it is important to understand whatever we do come to know in a most accurate sense possible.

4 comments

  1. Yuinen says:

    The San Diego Fo Guang Shan temple, Hsi Fang, has an annual Lunar New Year service. The Buddhist Temple of San Diego (Jodo Shinshu) also has a New Year’s eve and New Year’s day (western calandar) service, so those can be times for religious observances, even if the holiday itself doesn’t have any inherent religious affiliation. There are Chinese Christians who also do New Year festivities. I’ve haven’t heard this story about Nian as being part of a Chinese New Year Buddhist service – the one at Hsi Fang includes recitation of the Heart Sutra and prostrations to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to welcome in the new year.

  2. Angela says:

    Just found this wonderful blog – it’s really great! It also offers such a fresh, important perspective, as I’m a white American Buddhist with only a very superficial understanding of the cultural trappings of Buddhism – especially from a diasporic, 2nd/3rd gen POV. Have been reading through the posts, and they’ve been informative and fascinating (as well as motivating – I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one who ends up not meditating because of going out!). Have subscribed to your posts. Looking forward to your next posts!

  3. kudos says:

    Yuinen, I believe the story about Nian is more of an explanation of the origins of Chinese New Year, such as the firecrackers, the red paper slips, etc, rather than the Chinese New Year Buddhist Service. However, I agree that Chinese New Year can definitely be a time for religious observance. Every year, I enjoy going to the events put on by Buddhist temples during Chinese New Year.

    Angela, thanks for your input. We are always happy to hear from new readers and that the content of our blog is useful to you. We are all really learning together so our reader’s comments contribute just as much to the content of the site as do our posts.

Comments are closed.