The Lunar New Year (LNY) brings with it family gatherings, delicious goodies and the excuse to indulge, as well as questions about how Christians may celebrate without compromising our faith commitment to Jesus.
In considering such questions, let us Chinese Christians remember that God birthed us as Chinese, so there is nothing wrong with appreciating and engaging with our ethnic culture.
We simply need to learn to sort out what is biblically acceptable, unacceptable or open. The acceptable are basically traditions that do not carry religious or superstitious connotations. Those that do are unacceptable, along with those which are generally free of religious basis, but open to superstitious enticement.
Acceptable: Family reunions and visitations are generally free of religious and superstitious connotations and are, in fact, encouraged (1 Tim 5:8). These gatherings serve the important role of renewing and strengthening relational bonds, as well as reconciliation (Col 3:13). Paying respect to our elders on the first day of the new year also teaches and reminds us to honour those who have raised us (Ex 20:12).
Unacceptable: Spring cleaning in preparation for receiving guests is practical and necessary, but we should not hold to the traditional idea that it removes the negativity and bad luck of the year past. Such a belief also advocates not sweeping the floor during the LNY period for fear of sweeping away all the luck of the new year. Christians need not fear—our Lord both protects (Ps 46:1; Isa 41:10) and provides (2 Cor 9:8)—and should not hold to such a belief.
Open: The most common greeting, discouraged by the Church, is “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (恭喜发财). Why, when Scripture does not restrict us from wishing prosperity upon another (3 John 1:2)? The concern rests with the enticing lure of materialism, to which all are susceptible (1 Tim 6:10).
We should, instead, use other greetings to wish happiness (“Xin Nian Meng Fu”[ 新年蒙福]), improvement in studies (“Xue Ye Jin Bu” [学业进步]), mercy (“Xin Nian Meng En”[ 新年蒙恩]), and harmony for the whole family (“He Qi Ji Xiang Quan Jia Le” [和氣吉祥全家樂]), just to name a few.
Bear in mind that just about everything done, eaten, worn or used as decoration during the festive period carries some symbolism—of prosperity, longevity and blessings. Take for example, the eating of fish (“Yu” [鱼], to connote abundance “Nian Nian You Yu” ]年年有余]) and the wearing of red clothes (symbolising good fortune and joy). Choosing to do away with everything that carries symbolism would result in a drab celebration and is quite unnecessary. Symbolism does not automatically equate to superstition.
The advice here would be to avoid that which is overtly religious or superstitious and would cause an immediate link with a religious or superstitious idea or practice. For example, visitors who see pussy willows in our home would not automatically think that we hope the LNY would bring us growth and prosperity (which pussy willows symbolise). They are likely to accept it as a traditional decoration. On the other hand, pots of “lucky bamboo” would cause them to wonder otherwise.
There are LNY traditions we can engage in without compromising our faith commitment to God. For those which draw us into the worship of anything but Jesus, let us politely but firmly decline while explaining that we do not mean disrespect, but are simply seeking to be faithful to our Christian beliefs. Most, with whom we communicate clearly and see our faith lived out consistently, will listen. With the rest, show grace and pray.
Have a blessed Lunar New Year!
The Rev Daniel Tong is Vicar of Saint Andrew’s Community Chapel, and Head of Pastoral Care Services at Saint Andrew’s Community Hospital. He is the author of A Biblical Approach to Chinese Traditions and Beliefs.
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