Celebrating the Lunar New Year During COVID

Many around the world will celebrate the Lunar New Year, as they always do. There are numerous names to the Lunar New Year in different countries, but they all revolve around the same calendar, or the moon in this case. Like many other New Year celebrations, it is a symbol of bidding goodbye to the old year’s bad luck and misfortunes and starting fresh with good luck and happiness. These celebrations are often accompanied by large reunion parties with friends, family and sometimes strangers who just happened to be invited. For many Asian American communities, it is one of many events that still connects them to the homeland. 

Leading up to the New Year is always a tedious but exciting process. From frantically buying groceries and decorations, cooking for days for a big reunion dinner, thoroughly cleaning the house to sweep away the bad luck to make way for good luck, it is all a giddy adrenaline inducing event. It is a happy, frustrating and satisfying process at the same time. People use the Lunar New Year as an opportunity to reconnect with distant family and family friends who haven’t been seen in years. Gift giving happens with the elders giving red envelopes to the children. It is also common for some families to pile into cars after the big dinner and go to a temple, often a Buddhist temple, to light the first incense of the year and pray for good luck from the gods and goddesses, all while it’s accompanied by firecrackers and lion dances at the gate. Doing this means being packed like sardines in what would be an otherwise empty temple, choking on incense fumes and not moving for what seems to be an eternity. It’s part of what makes the Lunar New Year experience so unique. It is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s rolled into one giant holiday. It’s a time where everyone will come back home and help clean the house from the top to the bottom. 

Adding to the hectic nature of preparing for the New Year, is digging through endless stacks of red envelopes and finding a pack with the perfect meaning and symbolism, going to banks exchanging old bills for fresh ones and speeding from flower shop to flower shop to find the perfect bunch before someone else does. It’s a race against time every year, and there is bound to be a toddler being dragged through the store, slowing down the family by asking if they can get that tart candy that they like. Trying to remember certain things to avoid is a bit like playing a game of telephone with your grandma. You’ll try and do your best to do something a certain way, but it’s almost inevitable that someone will come along and fix something you didn’t know you did wrong. 

But this year is different. There will be no big reunions with bouncing music for many families, few red envelopes exchanging hands and no being packed like sardines in smoke-filled temples. While the bright red decorations will still be up in many places like stores, restaurants, homes and streets, they are all missing one common denominator. A crowd of people joyfully greeting each other. In place of gatherings will be tiny Zoom calls and family asking for tech help from their kids. There won’t be the rowdiness of talking over each other over the table, deafening laughter or the entertainment of aunts and uncles fighting to pay the bill. It will all have to be done in an orderly fashion so everyone can get a word in without being cut out by accident. Looking back, this year’s celebrations will be bittersweet for many. There will be families mourning the loss of a loved one from the pandemic while trying to ring in the Lunar New Year with hopes of luck and fortune. 

The vestiges of happy celebrations are all there, but the possibility of becoming sick and passing it on to the matriarchs and patriarchs is too great for many families. Stories, memories and years of wisdom would be lost. Instead, celebrations will be limited to a single household with everyone hoping that the next year will bring enough good luck so that we can all have loud chaotic dinners again.