Organizers of the upcoming Year of the Dragon Lunar New Year Celebration at the Hamilton Lugar School are creating an event with two diverse audiences in mind—those who are just learning about the holiday, and those who consider it to be the most important holiday in their family and culture.
From noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 10, the celebration in the Hamilton Lugar School atrium will feature games, activities, raffle prizes, and food—no RSVP required. The event is open to the public, and co-hosted by the Chinese Flagship Program, East Asian Studies Center, Institute for Korean Studies, and the National Taiwan University Huayu BEST Program.
One of the organizers is Professor Yea-Fen Chen, director of the Chinese Flagship program, and a native of Taiwan. She says, “The Lunar New Year is one of the most—if not the most—important holiday in Chinese culture.” As a result, she says, “I think for Chinese people overseas, this is probably the saddest day, because it’s supposed to be for family reunions.” With this celebration, the organizers hope to bring a sense of community to those who can’t be with family.
The event is not just for those who traditionally celebrate the holiday, however. Chen says, “For our Chinese Flagship students, they should learn all about the cultural traditions before they go to Taiwan, so this is part of how we do the cultural preparation.” In addition, she says the event is for all ages, and adds, “We want community engagement, so our event will be in English.”
Another organizer is Seung-kyung Kim, Korea Foundation Professor and director of the Institute for Korean Studies. A native of Korea, Kim agrees that the Lunar New Year is a major holiday in her home country. “Seollal—what we call the New Year—and Chuseok, which falls in autumn, are the two most important holidays and celebrations for Koreans.”
In Korea, the country’s history of Japanese colonization from 1910-1945 lends extra significance to the holiday. Kim explains, “Japanese do not celebrate the Lunar calendar. So, during colonialization they forced Koreans to do only the first of January as the New Year celebrations.” Koreans did not give in so easily, she says, “Even during that time Koreans, of course, didn’t listen, because this is our own different kind of cultural celebration. So, they kept continuing to do that.”
Koreans have celebrated Seollal for centuries, and Kim says, “Even the Korean Government also tried to get rid of this because they thought this was a more backward kind of thing.” However, she says, “Again, people just resisted. Finally, the government gave in to make this Lunar New Year celebration almost a weeklong kind of period at this point.”
Because the United States follows the Gregorian (solar) calendar, the date of the Lunar New Year varies slightly each year, with start dates ranging from January 21 to February 20. Each lunar year is named after one of 12 zodiac animals, and 2024 is the year of the dragon. Chen says, “The dragon is especially auspicious, and usually you see the birthrate jump in the year of dragon.”
Kim adds, “This year is particularly important because it’s a blue dragon. It is an auspicious year to give birth. Korea is hoping this year will help pivot what we call an ultra-low fertility rate.”
Chen notes that in Taiwan, it is the year of the wood dragon, not blue.
Regardless of what color dragon each culture recognizes, both professors hope that the Hamilton Lugar Festival will start with a dragon dance featuring the new dragon they acquired last year.
There is a long tradition of celebrating the Lunar New Year at Indiana University (IU). Chen says, “I’m an IU alum. I came to Bloomington in 1987. I lived in Eigenmann Hall. At the time the Taiwanese Student Association was called the Chinese Student Association. Eigenmann used to have a cafeteria, and every year, the Chinese Student Association celebrated the New Year there with a potluck and some entertainment, and we invited the mayor to come, too … it’s really the biggest, very important holiday for the Chinese students.”
After earning her Ph.D. in Language Education at IU, Chen taught at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin for many years. She says, “When I organized Chinese New Year celebrations in Milwaukee, we even gave out money to the younger kids—two dollars per person.”
Kim adds, “Yes, the money is the most important part for the kids. When I was growing up, you got a new set of clothing, Korean traditional dress, and after you bowed to your grandparents and parents you would get money from them. So that’s how kids get whatever pocket money that they can.”
Chen says, “But the definition of being kids is actually kind of very different. You are a kid before you get married. That’s why we gave out money to the students who were not married.”
Kim concurs, saying, “Marriage is one of the very important markers [of adulthood], although Koreans and other East Asians are getting married later and later and letting go of that altogether.”
Chen recalls her childhood in Taiwan, saying, “After we received the red envelope of money, we had to put it under our pillow. It would help us grow. And the kids are supposed to stay awake the whole night—at least until at least after midnight—that helps with longevity for our parents.”
Kim replies, “I don’t remember that. But we stayed up because we wanted to see our new clothing.”
Clothing is an important aspect of the holiday for Chen, too. She says, “When I was growing up, Taiwan was still very poor. The Chinese New Year was, for my family, the only time we’ll be able to buy new clothes. But nowadays people can afford to buy new clothes any day … but they are supposed to wear new clothes on the Lunar New Year and the red is the color. Yeah, you’ll see red everywhere.”
When asked about what foods are traditionally eaten on the new year, Chen says, “China is very diverse. Even in Taiwan, there is not just one way of celebrating the new year, especially with food.” She says although a common stereotype is that people eat dumplings on the holiday, “I never had any dumplings. Some Taiwanese people may eat dumplings, but my family didn’t.”
Chen continues, “Every dish for the New Year’s Eve has a very special meaning.” For example, in Mandarin, the words for “fish” and “surplus” sound the same. She says, “In Taiwan, you’re supposed to eat fish on New Year’s Eve, but you can’t finish it so you will have plenty of food for the coming year.”
In their home countries, Lunar New Year celebrations go on for many days. Chen says, “People get five days off at least. On the fifth day you are supposed to go back to work, and but then, really, the New Year celebration will end on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival, which is also a big event.”
Kim adds, “We don’t have the Lantern Festival, but in Korea, the full moon after the Lunar New Year there’s some celebration going on. At that time, we have ogokbap (five grain rice).”
Although they may not serve fish or ogokbap at the Hamilton Lugar School festival, Kim says, “We will have Korean, Chinese, and Taiwan food that students like.”
During the February 10 event, participants will also have the chance to learn to play Yut Nori and Mahjong, practice writing New Year scrolls, and make paper Hanboks. For the full schedule of activities for the Year of the Dragon Lunar New Year Celebration, visit the Hamilton Lugar School event calendar.