COLUMBIA - The Hong Kong Market on I-70 Drive Southeast was abuzz Saturday as many of its patrons shopped for last-minute food items and party favors in preparation for one of China's biggest holidays - the Lunar New Year, which begins Monday.
“It’s the biggest holiday for Chinese. Period,” said Joe Wong, 22. “For here (the U.S.), it’s a pretty big event. In China, it’s equivalent to Christmas.”
The Lunar New Year begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice, which usually occurs around Dec. 20. Also called the Spring Festival, celebrations last 15 days, closing on the first full moon of the new year, according to the China Internet Information Center, a Chinese government-sponsored Web site.
Wong said gifts are not traditionally given for the Lunar New Year. Instead, older family members prepare red envelopes that hold money, called "lai see," and give them to the younger generations.
This practice is, “a mix of greeting someone and wishing them New Year’s good luck. Chinese businesses give their employees red envelopes,” said Wong, whose father manages the Hong Kong Market.
Each lunar year is also traditionally represented by one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. 2009 marks the end of the year of the rat and the beginning of the year of the ox. People born in previous years of the ox are thought to be diligent, hard-working and honest, said Wenqing Dai, 24.
To ward off evil, these people have to wear something red, Dai said. "Red will help to avoid something bad happening,” said Dai, pointing to the red bracelet on her wrist.
Dai said that in her home city of Beijing, there is a bazaar called "miao hui" to celebrate the new year.
"They sell crafts and traditional food," she said. "It's just a lot of people enjoying the times."
Food is also important in new year's celebrations. While shopping Saturday in the market, Dai and her friend, Jia Yao, included dumplings and rice balls filled with sesame seed stuffing in their cart. Dumplings are customary in northern China, where Dai is from, and rice pudding is popular in southern China, where Yao is from.
While such traditions are essential to the celebration of the new year, family is the true focal point of the celebration for most Chinese.
A recent immigrant to the U.S. from Nanchang in China's Jiangxi province, Yao, 26, said, “the first year I came here, it (the Lunar New Year) was really significant, a big occasion.”
But spending her third year in Columbia without family has substantially lessened her enthusiasm for the holiday. Yao said she’s planning a low-key event this year with “no family, just friends.”
Ye Ling, 25, also does not intend to celebrate this year because of his family’s absence.
“You just can’t have a party with friends and not have family there,” he said. “People have to work and go to school; it doesn’t feel like it’s a holiday.”
For Ling and others in similar situations, organizations such as the Friendship Association of Chinese Students and Scholars and the Chinese Students Association are hosting events to bring together Chinese Columbians to celebrate the new year.
According to an article from the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Chinese have great hope for 2009 because the ox is traditionally a symbol of good luck.