Locals celebrate the Year of the Ox

Lunar New Year celebrations look a bit different this year.

Photo courtesy of The Cherry Hill Huaxia Chinese School. This year, families with ties to the Cherry Hill Huaxia Chinese School celebrated Lunar New Year at home. Christine Yang (daughter) and Amy Yang (mom) of Swedesboro hold a Spring Festival Couplet with wishes for safety, health, fortune and good luck.

Residents across South Jersey have reason to celebrate: 2020, the Year of the Rat, is over, and the Lunar New Year has begun for 2021, the Year of the Ox, according to the Chinese zodiac.

Called the Lunar New Year because the holiday celebrates the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar, the celebration began on Feb. 11 and will culminate with the Lantern Festival on Feb. 26. 

In a typical year, the holiday’s traditions emphasize gathering with family and friends. Given the current restrictions, celebrations have looked a bit different, but locals still find ways to keep the traditions alive.

Moorestown resident Sharon Hou said that normally, generations of family members come together for Lunar New Year. Throughout the holiday, you visit your family, key relatives and friends. There are gatherings and food plays a key role as people come together to make traditional dishes to share. 

Decorations also play an important role. Families hang red ribbons and lanterns and hang door ornaments with lucky phrases. The color red is meant to symbolize good fortune and joy, two key themes that permeate the holiday’s traditions. 

Hou said given the pandemic, visiting friends and hosting large gatherings isn’t wise. So her celebrations have remained small, with just immediate family and a close friend’s family who is part of her bubble. 

Given much of her family is still in Shanghai, it was already primed in some ways to celebrate separately. Hou said family members are using FaceTime to feel connected. 

She added that local Chinese markets have been well stocked, and her family still decorated and cooked together. While the celebrations have largely been more intimate, there hasn’t been any less emphasis on connection. 

Mount Laurel resident Li Li, a Chinese teacher at Moorestown Friends School, acts as principal of the Cherry Hill Huaxia Chinese School. Approximately 95 percent of the school’s students are from Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel, Voorhees, Moorestown and surrounding towns. 

In some ways, Li said 2021 was a chance to connect even more deeply with some of the holiday’s traditions. While she couldn’t attend any gatherings, her daughters encouraged the family to celebrate with some of the traditions that they could at home., so the family made dumplings and other dishes together. 

In a typical year, families gather together for a Lunar New Year celebration gala, the Chinese school’s biggest event of the year. Nearly two months of work is put into planning the evening, and members of the South Jersey Chinese community who don’t even have students at the school come each year to be part of the festivities. 

Students sing, dance or perform poetry, usually in the auditorium of Cherry Hill High School West. After the performances, the school sells food for a donation, there’s a calligraphy showing and every child leaves with a red envelope containing a few dollars. 

Unfortunately, getting together was out of the question this year, so instead, the school put together a Zoom show consisting of submissions from its students. Hou, whose own children attend the school, said she commends its staff for finding a creative way to continue the tradition. 

“I applaud people who are trying to be resilient and still bring the community together,” she added. 

Li said she was pleasantly surprised by how the show came together. She was touched when she saw that families wore red, utilized backdrops or committed to the holiday’s themes in other ways for their videos.

“The point to Chinese people when they celebrate is they want the atmosphere [to be really] lively and [to have] everybody’s participation. The colors, a lot of red, the feelings make you feel warm, feel hope and feel loved.” 

Hou will serve as presenter for a virtual MooreUnity event on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. to celebrate Lunar New Year, during which she’ll share a bit about the history and traditions of the holiday. Visit MooreUnity’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MooreUnity to learn more. 

To learn more about the Cherry Hill Huaxia Chinese School, visit www.hxch.org.