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7 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Lunar New Year in the U.S.

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Chinese New Year Parade in Washington, D.C. (Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Lunar New Year has a long history in the United States. Well, not that long. Oracle bones indicate that Lunar New Year existed in China as early as 14th century, B.C. Historical records—not oracle bones, unfortunately—indicate that the first celebration took place in the U.S. in 1851. Still, Lunar New Year is a tradition in the United States that spans several cultures and takes place today in places from New York to Butte, Montana to Los Angeles. Here are a few of the Lunar New Year celebrations you should know about:

 

1. SAN FRANCISCO

On February 1, 1851, Chinese businessman Norman Assing hosted the first recorded Lunar New Year celebration in the U.S.—but this ‘feast’ was held for policemen and ladies, not for people of Chinese ancestry. Assing had a history of advocating for the merits of Chinese culture to the wider American public. As he wrote in this letter to Governor Bigler of California, “We would beg to remind you that when your nation was a wilderness, and the nation from who you sprung barbarous, we exercised most of the arts and virtues of civilized life; that we are possessed of a language and literature…” By 1855, Lunar New Year was more of a public celebration in San Francisco.

 

2. NEW YORK

(Photo Courtesy of William Chan, Museum of Chinese in America Collection)

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Men on East Broadway about to set off a firecracker on Chinese Lunar New Year in 1984. (Photograph taken by Bud Glick, Museum of Chinese in America Collection)

New York has one of the oldest Lunar New Year celebrations in the U.S. It has survived a six-year ban on fireworks from 1997-2003—which is basically a six-year ban on banishing evil spirits. Josephine Chung of the Organization of Chinese Americans, called the ban “a violation of the cultural heritage and tradition which is several thousand years old, and of religious significance to many Chinese Americans.” This past year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that will allow New York City schools to have the option of closing in observance of Lunar New Year. Whether or not the school will close is left up to the discretion of each individual school.

 

3. BUTTE, MONTANA

(Photo by Richard Gibson, used with permission / Cut from original)

Once home to more than 2,500 people of Chinese ancestry, only 92 people of Chinese ancestry lived in Butte, Montana by 1940 due to discrimination. In the late 1800s, the vibrant Chinese immigrant community introduced the Butte Community to Lunar New Year. In 1896, a Butte Miner article wrote, “Dr. Huie Pock and Tom Lee, two of the most prominent Chinamen in the city, gave a very elaborate dinner in honor of their New Year, to a number of their American friends last night.” But, in 1902, a headline from the Anaconda Standard proclaimed, “No Celebration Here: Chinese New Year Will Past Almost Unheeded.” More than a century later, the Mai Wah Society preserves the legacy of the Chinese immigrants in Butte and its Lunar New Year is small and cold, but thriving. Its parade uses a dragon given to the museum by Taiwan.

 

4. TET – COSTA MESA, CA

lny2015_costamesa

(“Pho bo” by Amy Nakazawa used under the CC 2.0 / Cut from original)

The Costa Mesa Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, celebration attracts over 100,000 guests annually to their three-day festival according to their website. Preceded by a 5K run, the celebration features a beauty pageant for Miss Vietnam of Southern California, as well as firecrackers and games. No Tet celebration would be complete without “a vibrant array of traditional foods” but they take it one step further with a pho eating contest.

 

5. SEOLLAL – DALLAS, TEXAS

Where do they celebrate Seollal with ice skating? Dallas, Texas. Celebrate Lunar New Year with @SmithsonianAPA & @FreerSackler on February 21!

This is the first year Hallyufied has organized a Seollal, or Korean New Year, celebration in Dallas, Texas. In honor of PyeongChang hosting the Winter Olympics in 2018, the celebration will feature ice skating, as well as traditional games like gonggi and yutnori.

6. LOSAR – MINNEAPOLIS, MN

(Photo taken by Christopher Michel used under CC BY 2.0 / Cut from original)

In 2014, the Dalai Lama celebrated Losar in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. The Twin Cities are home to one of the largest Tibetan American communities in the United States, and Tibetan Americans came from around the country for the event. Around 3,000 Tibetans and others came from around the country to celebrate Losar. It was the first year the Dalai Lama had celebrated Losar outside of India since his exile 55 years before. He was offered a white scarf and community members performed songs and dances for him. Losar follows the Lunar Calendar, but is not always celebrated at the same time as Chinese New Year. In 2014, when Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Mongolian Lunar New Years took place around January 31, Losar occurred on March 2. This year, it begins on February 19.

 

7. TSAGAAN SAR – QUEENS, NEW YORK

(“Four Horses” by Trey Radcliffe, used under CC BY NC SA 2.0 / Cut from original)

Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year. In past years, the Mongolian Heritage Foundation in Queens, NY, has hosted the event. The blog Mongol American has detailed instructions on how to act during Tsagaan Sar.

How to Perform the Zolgokh Greeting

  1. Young person puts hands under the older person’s elbows and grasps their elbows to show support.
  2. Older person puts his/her arms on top of the older persons.
  3. Older person smells each side of younger person’s head.
  4. Press each of your cheeks against the other person’s.
  5. Say “Daaga dalantai, byaruu bulchintai, sureg mal targan orov uu?” (Translation: “Does your 2-year-old horse have enough fat on the withers, does your 2-year-old yak have enough muscle, did all your animals pass winter safely?” or “Do you have good health and strength this year?”)

In a more general greeting, you may ask “Amar baina uu?” which means “Is there peace?”

 

Join the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center at the Freer Sackler Gallery on February 21, 2015.

Our blogger Pat Tanumihardja, from Pickles & Tea will do cooking demonstrations at 12:30pm and 2:30pm and our friends at Freer | Sackler have a bunch of other activities planned to ring in the Lunar New Year. Learn more here.

Know of a Lunar New Year celebration that should have been included but wasn’t? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @SmithsonianAPA.

Discussion

  • Mary Yee

    I love the last line in the entry on the Mongolian celebration: “Is there peace?”

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