It’s Chinese New Year and you may find yourself in a “dilemma”—you are expected to observe traditions but you feel you are pandering to superstitions and that’s not Christian.
The good news is, like Christmas and many other major festivals, family, fun and food are the main themes of Chinese New Year. In fact, many of the customs practiced are in line with the teachings of Christianity itself. Filial piety and respect for the elders is strictly observed, and bonds between loved ones and friends are strengthened by visiting each other’s homes.
Many of the do’s and don’ts observed during the 15 days of celebration stem from the belief that whatever one does during this auspicious period will echo throughout the year. While Christians do not subscribe to this, there’s definitely no harm in keeping the positive practices—debts to be cleared before the beginning of the festival, the house to be springcleaned, and quarreling as well as mouthing bad words prohibited. Going to Chinatown for a stroll to enjoy the festive spirit presents no religious meaning or otherwise.
|CN PHOTOS: Chiang Pak Shane|
The prosperity greeting of “gong xi fa cai” during Chinese New Year, sometimes a point of contention among more conservative Christians, is akin to us wishing well for our neighbors. Children presenting tea or oranges to their parents on their knees is another gesture that not all Christians embrace, but is for most a sign of respect for their elders.
According to some scholars, the custom of hanging red banners above the main entrance of a residence may just be a throwback to the biblical event of the Passover, where ancient Hebrews painted their doors with lamb’s blood before the Exodus. While unconfirmed, the similarities are present. Additionally, the giving of angpows (red packets) bestows blessings upon both the giver and recipient.
“Through these things, we see how God tries to bless us through so many different ways, and we keep it in the essence of our culture, and celebrate this happy festival every year,” says Lulu Fu, a translator who hails from Taiwan.
The observance of certain customs, on the other hand, has less prominence nowadays. Observes Tan Kim Hock, Academic Dean of the School of Theology at CHC, “The superstition of not sweeping the floor on the first day of New Year in case the ‘luck’ for the coming year is swept away is easily circumvented as people nowadays use vacuum cleaners—so you have a clean floor yet keep the dust (‘luck’) in the bag!”
There are things that Christians should exercise caution and wisdom before participating in, such as gambling, drinking, and bowing down before ancestors.
“While we don’t advocate gambling as it is motivated by greed and monetary gains, drinking is fine so long as we don’t get drunk,” is Tan’s view.
He adds, “In our culture today bowing is an acceptable gesture of respect but Christians need to be careful about holding joss sticks because in Chinese culture, it’s a symbol of worship.” Tan’s checklist before participating in any activity, not just during Chinese New Year but every day, in fact, is whether it will be a good testimony for Christ, whether our faith will condemn us (if we are doing it out of unbelief) and whether what we do can glorify God.
Says Fu, “Many things are amoral—neither right nor wrong, so it is hard to define what Christians can or cannot do. Incense, for example, is not a bad thing. In the Old Testament it is used by the priests to worship God. What we have to ask ourselves before doing something is, ‘Who are we worshiping? Is it God or something else?’”
She illustrates with an example, “If we take a bow in front of our ancestors’ altar, it is alright as a form of respect, but it becomes wrong when we say things like ‘Please bless us and keep us safe’, because it goes against the teaching that God is our only source of protection and blessings. The bottom line is that we have to know what we are doing.
“We need to remember that while we are not of the world, we are in the world, and there is no reason not to mingle and celebrate with family, relatives and human society in general. There’s no point in keeping a whole list of do’s and don’ts if they draw us further and further away from society.”