Celebrating Lunar New Year during a pandemic

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Because of strict covid regulations, Lunar New Year was not about big celebrations, fancy fireworks, and New Year Galas this year, but more about staying inside and safe, but still keeping spirits high while connecting with each other online. Austeja Treinyte looks into how the University of Essex students celebrated Lunar New Year and what the holiday is all about.

In Chinese culture, heavy snow represents a prosperous new year. If you think about it, snow is water and when it falls into the ground, it nourishes the soil, and nature nurtures and benefits from it. Recently, Colchester saw some very heavy snow. Such thick blankets of snow haven’t been seen in years. So after a year dominated by an international health crisis, financial and emotional struggles, this heavy snow suggests hope for a better and more prosperous new year. It also means that winter is almost over here in the UK, the spring is not far, and also a new beginning is just around the corner.

With these thoughts and hopes in mind students at the University of Essex said their farewells, their adieus, and their goodbyes to a very difficult year as the Lunar New Year approached.

Normally, Lunar New Year is known to be the world’s single biggest movement of humanity, as hundreds of millions of families in China and other Asian countries gather together in their hometowns or travel abroad. As friends and family finally cuddle up together and comes the day that marks the first new moon of the lunar calendar, the 15-day festivities begin.

Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash..jpg
Credits: Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

The origins of the Lunar New Year festival are thousands of years old and are based on numerous traditions and legends. One legend tells about Nian, a vile beast that would attack villages every Lunar New Year, eating people and their livestock and grain. It turned out that the colour red, loud noises, and fire, were the things Nian feared the most. Following the traditions, modern-day Lunar New Year usually includes families having their reunion dinners full of traditional Lunar New Year foods, firecrackers being set off at the stroke of midnight, and red pockets full of money being gifted from elders or parents to children.

However, this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations were bound to look different. Seems like the Nian of today is not a giant, hideous, human flesh-eating creature, but rather an invisible monster. The coronavirus doesn’t fear loud noises or the colour red, unfortunately. Instead, it feasts on huge crowds and big celebrations. Because of strict covid regulations still in place, Lunar New Year was not about big celebrations or fancy fireworks this year, but more about staying inside and safe, but still keeping spirits high while connecting with each other through online means.

At the University of Essex, Lunar New Year celebrations had to be moved online. Students were welcomed to join online events by booking their place and following a link to a zoom session. Alex Ilie, VP International, says the biggest challenge was to divert from the normal zoom classes when organising events for Lunar New Year, as students more and more often get drained from online teaching. ‘The events should still be interactive, engaging and at least teach a little about the culture’, he says.

A series of events, which begun on February 8th and lasted up until the grand culmination show on February 12th, were made in collaboration with the Colchester Chinese Culture Society (CCCS), the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), the Malaysian Society, the Origami Society, and with the help of the ISA and the SU. 

Alex says the engagement from different societies when organising the Lunar New Year events was amazing: ‘all cultural celebrations are about the involvement of students. It’s not organising anything for them, but rather working with them. That’s when you actually represent the culture’. Working together students were able to produce a series of events that not only represented the Chinese culture but were also engaging in a fun and educational way.

royalty free tai-chi photos free download | Piqsels
Credits: Piqsels

Master Dr Xie Yuhong led one of the most educational sessions of Tai Chi, which is an internal Chinese martial art, practised for defence training, health benefits, and meditation. Following Dr. Yuhong’s instructions, students learned the basics of Tai Chi and balancing their yin and yang to reach a natural state of harmony.

Students were also able to test their knowledge on Lunar New Year in a quiz hosted by the Malaysian Society (MSE) with the help of the ISA or get their hands on paper and find out what’s so special about the art of paper folding in an origami session. Chloe Low, President of the MSE, says the events were the biggest turnout they’ve had since they’ve started their term, and everyone involved in the planning process of the events felt really proud at the end of the day.

Chloe was happy to notice by hosting the Lunar New Year quiz and the origami session together with the Origami Society that they were still able to interact with others online and overcome the ‘Zoom Fatigue’. She says: ‘Although some of us only had white paper to fold, I am certain it brought lots of colour to our cheeks and hearts as those who attended couldn’t stop smiling throughout the origami session.’

Other online events included calligraphy sessions, which is an art form of writing Chinese characters, led by Annie, a Chinese calligrapher with 20 years of experience, and an opera face mask painting lesson with the artist Mr. Archie Sheng. Students on campus were also able to collect free celebration bags full of  sweet treats and traditional items as they celebrate watching the New Year Gala show online, the final event of the week filled with a variety of musical and dance performances.

Kanji texts
Credits: Raychan on Unsplash

ISA organising a live stream event for students to watch the Lunar New Year Gala in collaboration with CSSA were hoping to create an experience that at least in a way resembles the traditional, something that people are used to seeing on TV on New Year’s eve. The CSSA New Year’s Gala, commonly abbreviated in Chinese as Chunwan, normally, has the largest audience of any entertainment show in the world and has become a ritual for many Chinese families.

The New Year Gala, which was made available to watch for students at the University of Essex and other universities, was organised by student volunteers. Tom X, President of CSSA, says Chinese students enjoyed the event, posting screenshots of the New Year Gala on WeChat, a combination of all social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, etc. ‘They loved it’, Tom says, ‘because they’re not watching a television show, but they’re watching a show presented to them by student volunteers and so it belongs to them’.

Even though there are strict rules in place because of Covid-19 and students could not participate in the usual big celebrations and meet face to face, student societies in collaboration with ISA and the SU still managed to create something similar to what people are used to when celebrating the New Year. Tom says: ‘the online events like face painting and the New Year Gala show, which students participated in, brought a sense of memory and a sense of home. We, humans, have a memory of smell and taste so when a student gets their red pocket, their pineapple cake as part of their celebration bag it brings lots of memories. So it’s still both a physical and emotional way to celebrate.’

Photo by Mei Shiuan..jpeg
Credits: Mei Shiuan

Students could not celebrate with their immediate families or part of a student community, which brought disappointment but also various discoveries. Tom says the traditional way of celebrating the New Year has been changed but the online events have preserved the human connection, which is the most important attribute of Lunar New Year. ‘Chinese New Year is like Christmas for Western countries and it’s a time for family and friends to reunite. Because of Covid, we can’t meet offline, but even though it’s an online activity it still provides some sense of connection between people. So the tradition has been changed, we can’t reunite but we can meet up online and all of these events bring a sense of home, brings a taste of what the celebration used to be like. It’s our special kind of way to stay together and get through this time. I think that’s very inspiring,’ he says.

For Mei Shiuan Ong, a Malaysian student of Financial Economics at the University of Essex, this year’s Lunar New Year away from home was also a unique experience, as she normally celebrates it with her family in Malaysia. She says it has had a great impact on her mood, as it is her first time away from home celebrating a festival that plays a big role in her life. Normally, Mei and her relatives gather in their hometown in Malaysia to catch up during Lunar New Year. Usually, her aunties are cooking a feast, the family is having a reunion meal, known as the steamboat dinner and the younger generations play board games for the whole night and those nights, she says, are like a brief getaway from the hectic life. However, she was still able to celebrate the holiday with her friends by having dinner together, which although might not have been able to fill up the absence of her family, was still a memorable experience that whisked off the feeling of loneliness.

Photo by Mei Shiuan.jpeg
Credits: Mei Shiuan

Natasha Chan, who studies Social Anthropology, says that Lunar New Year for her means new beginnings, a chance to start fresh and wash away all the unhappiness and bad fortune of the past year. While Lunar New Year for Natasha is essentially a chance to reconnect with her loved ones in Malaysia, it’s also a time for friendly rivalry, for her cousins and her to compare who’s grown more in the past year, to see who’s gotten better grades in school so far, and who’s gotten the most angpao money. Although she admits, the red envelopes filled with money Natasha gets from her family are not the most exciting part, as she rushes to greet them early in the morning. More important is to wish good health and prosperity upon them. Also, Natasha and her sister have a tradition to spend the eve of Lunar New Year placing pairs of oranges on every surface of the house, such as cupboards, tables, and even bathroom counters. It’s a way to signify that there’ll be prosperity and good fortune to be found in every corner of the house.

However, there was no huge 15-day celebration this year and Natasha could not meet her extended family. She says this was disappointing for her, but it also meant that she and her parents and sister had the chance to spend some quality time with each other.

Every year Chinese people hope for good luck and good fortune. That is because China in the past was a very poor country, so Lunar New Year used to be an opportunity for people who struggle to congratulate each other and hope for better. Although they’re not struggling that much anymore, they still say ‘gong hei fat choy’, which is the most common Chinese New Year greeting, meaning ‘congratulations and prosperity to you’.

red paper lanterns
Credits: Henry & Co on Unsplash

Tom X says that the greeting is actually even more important during Covid because during this time people are doing their job applications, their postgraduate applications, or even just starting university studies, all this during a very difficult time. ‘I think it’s just a very good opportunity to say congratulations and good luck. It’s been a difficult year, but today starting from the New Year is a new day and we just hope things will get better. It’s a warmth delivered to each other’, he says.

Because of the Covid pandemic, students like Natasha and Mei could not celebrate Lunar New Year the usual way and the University could not host its traditional huge celebrations. Simone Xue, Chairman of Colchester Chinese Culture Society, tells that while organising the online events they had to adapt and seek different ways of celebrating the Lunar New Year. ‘Due to the COVID-19 pandemic events had to take place through online platforms. However, due to circumstances beyond your control, you have to seek alternative methods and new ways of working,’ she says.

As circumstances change, we have to adapt and the tradition of Lunar New Year has been altered this year as well. New celebrations are not so much about fancy events but rather about quiet and peaceful gatherings online or with immediate families and friends while staying safe and well. In the future, after the struggles of the pandemic are long behind us, we may still sometimes choose to slow down and enjoy what we see as we look around us. We may as well enjoy that plain human connection just a moment longer before going strong again as that metal ox of 2021 in a swirl of dances, music, and all shapes and colours of fireworks.

Gong hei fat choy!