Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Keeping Lunar New Year traditions alive

Families ring in the year 4706

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When Cathryn Chang celebrated the Lunar New Year as a child in her native China, her mother would make upwards of 15 traditional Chinese dishes to celebrate the start of another year. Neighbors would knock on each other’s door to wish one another well, and family members would stay up late on the eve of the event to ring in the holiday.

Now, raising her two young daughters in Potomac, she said that life and work often make it difficult to celebrate the new year in the traditional Chinese style. But the spirit of the holiday for her remains the same.

‘‘To a certain degree it’s not as elaborate or as festive as it is in China,” Chang said. ‘‘But the kids get to do things like perform on stage and they feel that connection [to their culture]. It’s a special feeling for them as well as for me.”

To Asian families who celebrate the event, the Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year, according to Lily Qi, a community liaison in the County Executive’s Office of Community Partnerships.

‘‘It’s as important as a holiday like Christmas where families are expected to unite,” Qi said.

To mark the holiday, families practice traditions of ushering in good luck and spending time with family. This year’s holiday, which begins on Thursday, marks the beginning of the year 4706 — the Year of the Rat.

The holiday is celebrated by many in Montgomery County, which holds about 45 percent of Maryland’s Asian population, Qi said. Of the county’s Asian population — about 140,000 — Chinese and Korean people make up large portions, and both of those cultures celebrate the Lunar New Year, Qi said.

‘‘It’s an important holiday for this population that more people need to be aware of,” Qi said.

The county officially commemorates the holiday as of 2006, Qi said, and that means employers must be sensitive to the needs of those who celebrate the Lunar New Year. This year, the county’s libraries will feature a series of events that include traditional lion dance performances and programs put on by area Chinese schools and cultural organizations, and dances and performances will also take place at Lakeforest mall in Gaithersburg.

For many Asian families in the county, the Lunar New Year marks a blending of Asian and American cultures.

For Chang, a celebratory potluck dinner often features Asian and American cuisine. She still takes time to make a few extra special dishes for her family, and her children take part in performances at the Chinese Immersion Program at Potomac Elementary and receive traditional ‘‘luck money” in red envelopes. Sometimes, the family will celebrate with a nice dinner out.

In the spirit of honoring elders that accompanies the holiday, her children make a phone call to their grandparents in Taiwan.

‘‘If they don’t talk to them any other time during the year, this is a time where we have to put them on the phone to say, ‘Happy new year,’” Chang said.

Potomac resident Amber Hsu, whose parents immigrated to the United States from China, says she often sends out cards on the Lunar New Year in lieu of Christmas cards.

‘‘It’s kind of a melding of the two cultures,” Hsu said. ‘‘It’s our way to stay in touch with our friends and remind them that this holiday is pretty important to us.”

For Hsu, the Lunar New Year celebrations often center around her three children, two of whom also celebrate the festival at school through the Chinese Immersion Program at Potomac Elementary. One important lesson that she hopes children will take away from the Lunar New Year traditions is an added respect for elders. The children must bow to their parents, as a sign of respect, before they receive their luck money.

‘‘It’s a reminder of our culture and the culture of our parents and grandparents,” Hsu said.

Chang said she hopes her children will carry on the Lunar New Year celebrations in some form, though they will grow up surrounded by American culture.

‘‘I don’t expect them to carry on everything; I don’t even do that myself,” Chang said. ‘‘But I certainly hope they will keep the tradition going.”