Saturday, January 28, 2017

When the Atmosphere Determines a Holiday

Chinese New Year, come to think of it, can be a very elusive holiday.  Since it follows the lunar calendar that shifts back and forth relative to the Gregorian calendar in use today, the exact date for it fluctuates every year.  There simply is not a clear reminder that "ah, it is Dec 25 today, so it is Christmas" or "ah, it is Jan 1 today, so it is New Year's Day."  Instead, to remember Chinese New Year's, one often just go with the flow as everyone else celebrates.  The local malls and streets, and at home the dinner table and the decorations certainly would not have one forget the important day.

But that is in Asia (or where significant Chinese communities reside outside of Asia), not here in rural Africa.  The little Chinese community out here surely would have departed for Chinese hometowns, and obviously, the residents of the area, whether local or expat, are completely oblivious to the holiday from a strange land.  To be honest, the author only came to the realization that Chinese New Year 2017 is today after receiving a flurry of messages from across the ocean(s) this morning and Google searched the date.  Only then did he know that it actually falls squarely on today.

It is, after all, a regular weekend day out here, without any indication of, well, anything.  Absent are the massive dinners meticulously prepared over the course of days, with runs to markets set up especially to supply the usual items.  Gone are the prominence of red and gold colors in home and street decorations as well as dedicated entertainment options provided by TV programs, temple fairs, and firecrackers.  And most importantly, there is no sound of New Year's greetings and atmosphere of fraternity that always accompany the celebrations of copious amounts of food, play, and get-togethers.

The sameness of today kind of help questions exactly why a cultural holiday like Chinese New Year's exist in the first place.  On the superficial side, of course, the masses get a few days of break from work or school that allow them to take their family vacations, or this being the 21st century, go crazy shopping for deals like they would do in any other major commercialized holiday.  But without the essence of the holiday in the form of cultural traditions that serve as the pillars and the foundations, would that day circled on the calendar really mean anything?

The answer is that it probably does not.  Cultural holidays, ultimately, is about maintenance of traditions that bind together a certain cultural community.  These traditions does not necessarily have to be time-honored and rooted in history, but as is the case of Christmas in Asia these days, it does have to be include principles, however superficial, that can resonate with and are adhered by the general public, allowing the holiday to be celebrated together by the people, with everyone conscious of the rules of celebration.  The communal feature of the holiday's details is what defines the culture behind the holiday.

Furthermore, those rules of celebration are not adhered through coercion of any sort.  Chinese New Year's often feature extremely uncomfortable "interrogation" sessions during its multiple dinners where senior members of the extended family question junior members of progress in careers and private lives, but junior members generally see such discomfort as an integral part of the holiday celebrations,  a challenge to be faced head-on, not a reason to run away from the celebrations.  And if that's as bad as the celebrations can get, there really is not much more negative things standing in the way of a good time.

Indeed, what drives cultural celebrations to continue over course of decades and centuries practically unchanged is that there truly are plenty of practical incentives associated with the celebratory atmospheres they create.  From concrete things like good food and presents to more intangible ones like a feeling of belonging in a social circle rarely experienced any other time of the year, these positive reminders of holidays are what keep these holidays looming large in the minds of the people and drive them to celebrations year after year without fail.

Ultimately, that underlying motivation to keep the holiday running is what defines the spirit of the holiday.  The day circled on the calendar, or any other form of official-sounding announcement may remind people to the day itself, but it in itself does not make the holiday official.  Instead, what the people do in the days leading up that predefined day is what makes the day meaningful.  For that meaning, accurately noting which day it is really is a minor detail.  If people are willing to get together, prepare, and celebrate, then the holiday can be any day, anywhere, and in any format.  

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