Swarthmore Community Celebrates Lunar New Year
Forty-seven days after January 1st, on February 16th, 2018, Asian students across the Swarthmore campus gathered together for food, fun, and friendship to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Multiple student groups hosted events to celebrate what is considered the biggest festival of the year in many Asian communities.
The lunar calendar was created during the Chinese Shang dynasty to mark the cycles of agricultural production. Though the exact number of days and months changed over the years based on various regions and who was in power, eventually the new year was chosen to be on the day of the first new moon after the sun enters the 11th sign of the solar zodiac. This year is year 4716, as well as the year of the dog, based on the zodiac calendar, which rotates between 12 animals. Though frequently called Chinese New Year, the Lunar New Year is celebrated by many Asian countries like Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore.
“It’s like Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving lumped together in a 7-15 day period,” said Billy Yang ‘19, reflecting on the Lunar New Year celebrations held in China. While students don’t get any days off at Swarthmore for Lunar New Year, they make space to recreate the traditions they normally celebrate at home.
With the festivities beginning at 6:00pm in Lang Performing Arts Center, students gathered for Filipino food and a performance put on by the Penn Lions of the University of Pennsylvania. The group brought two lion costumes, each used by two students, one controlling the head and front legs, and the other controlling the back legs. To the beat of the drum and various percussion instruments, the lions interacted with the audience, getting up close and personal with those in the front row.
In the second half of the performance, the lions took on a challenge, fighting a spider made of oranges, black poles, and cabbages covered by cloth. As the lions tore the spider apart, the dancers performed daring acrobatics, the dancer at the head of the lion standing on the shoulders of the other to imitate a lion standing on two legs.
When the lions reached the cabbage, they took it in their mouths and shredded it up, showering pieces of lettuce on the audience. As the Penn Lions explained, the Chinese phrase for “picking the lettuce,” cai ching, is a homonym for good fortune, and therefore symbolic of spreading good fortune to the crowd.
As exciting as the performance was for the audience, the members of the Penn Lions also revel in the celebration of the lion dance. “Performing gives me a huge rush of energy. Our routines are really physically challenging, and it’s thrilling to land a perfect move and hear the following cheers of the crowd,” said Sara Zhou, Vice President of External Affairs for the Penn Lions.
After the performance, the Penn Lions stayed for pictures with the audience, creating fun, entertaining poses with the lions. As the time neared 8:00pm, they also decided to join the crowd of students headed to the Intercultural Center to enjoy hot pot with the Swarthmore Chinese Society (SCS).
Hot pot is a form of communal eating where groups of patrons sit around a pot of boiling water flavored with spices and cook their own food. Ingredients typically include meat slices, tofu, veggies, fish balls, and mushrooms, all of which are dumped into the pot together. This Friday, three pots were placed around the room, each of which held various combinations of these delicious raw ingredients.
The IC was packed with students wearing red, the color of good fortune and joy. In addition, many people stayed until midnight singing karaoke, playing mahjong, and spending time with friends.
“It’s nice to see people you don’t see because this is a very busy campus,” said Yang, “And it’s nice that people actually stayed - usually you go, you take the food, and you leave, but particularly for this event, you don’t plan to leave and you stay for the night because it’s more than an event.”
The festivities continued back at the IC on Saturday at 6:00pm, where the Southeast Asian Student Association (SEASA) hosted a dinner with Vietnamese food, karaoke, and card games. Just like with the previous night’s celebration, this one centered on spending time with good company and enjoying each others’ presence.
As the biggest celebration of the year for many Asian countries, the Lunar New Year emphasizes the importance of coming together as a family. In China, more than a million people travel home to celebrate the New Year. Similarly, some Swarthmore students returned home for the weekend.
Kevin Liao ‘21 headed back to New York, while his older sister made the trip from Wellesley College to continue the tradition of celebrating as a whole family. In addition to the typical traditions of wearing red and eating way too much food for dinner, the Liao family created a tradition of their own.
“You have to eat a piece of candy at the start of the day, it doesn’t matter how you get it,” joked Liao. “You eat it to start your day off sweet.”
For those like Yang who cannot go home for the weekend, they still make time for family. “I called my parents on New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s Day, before they go to bed and when they wake up,” he said.
Even thousands of miles away from home, Yang still holds the tradition of the Lunar New Year close to his heart. “When you’re immersed in your culture, you don’t appreciate it as much as when you leave it,” he reflected, “and you don’t realize how important those traditions are to keep the culture together.” At Swarthmore, students continue to come together every year and celebrate what’s most important during Lunar New Year: family.