Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, All is bright.
An understated paradox!
In planning a voyage around the world, I wanted to be in cultural settings during important cultural events. When I discovered that I would be in Asia during Chinese New Year, (thanks Nicole), it was an obvious choice. “I’ll go to Beijing.”
For most cultural celebrations, the experience itself is multivalent and the development of the holiday in the culture is multi-faceted. Chinese New Year is no different. Also known as the Spring Festival, it celebrates the beginning to the end of winter, and new life emerging with the changing season.
The religious/historical context for the celebration stems from Buddhist mythology. The legend goes that at the New Year, the enlightened Buddha brought all the animals together and arranged an order over them so that all creation would live in peace and harmony. Each of the animals would receive a year as their own, and the cosmos would continue in the order that Buddha had arranged.
Chinese people tend not to follow organized systems of religion. This is for several reasons. The Communist state favors Carl Marx’s “dialectic materialism,” that is, acceptance of a worldview that can be thought of historically, but only accepts what can be measured in material goods – touch, sight, sound, etc. God, to a Communist, is a fictitious social construct designed to control people and manipulate their material production capacity.
If you were to point to a religious tradition that most influences China, you would have to look to Buddhism and Confucianism. There are some major differences between these religions and the religions of the West. Both Buddhism and Confucianism are defined systems of philosophy, but do not profess faith in a God (Buddhism seeks understanding that God is not real). They are called “religions” but are so very different notion than that of Western religion. An important example of these difference is that there is no emphasis on the practice of communal worship that is seen in Western religions. Eastern religions tend to develop a society that is more “atheistic” in its natrue, but it gets difficult to analyze, and the title “atheism” co notates a Western understanding.
As a result of all this, religious traditions are not widely practiced, which makes the idea of Chinese New Year being labeled a Buddhist tradition seem odd to me, but as I said, cultural celebrations take on numerous influences. The Buddhist influence gives the name of the year, named after one of the animals he brought together. In this case, it is the year of the pig.
As I got closer to the New Year, I kept asking. “What is it all about? What’s the big deal?” I kept getting answers like “It’s like Christmas.” And “It’s just a FEELING.” “Well what is that FEELING?” I kept thinking.
Economists will point out that the economic impact to China during Chinese New Year is significant. People buy gifts, buy excess in food, travel, and enjoy luxury items. All this spending does a lot to spark the economy, just like Christmas.
On New Years Eve, I went to Mass and got my first taste of this FEELING. The first thing you notice is that the city of Beijing is much emptier than it was the last few days. The overcrowded busses were now merely full. The streets were not the same hustle and bustle. This was largely due to the fact that the majority of people who have moved to Beijing from the country, go back to their homes to be with their families, just like Christmas.
After Mass I went to Tiananmen Square, the historic place of gathering for the Chinese people directly in front of the Forbidden City. I got the opportunity to take some great night time photos. If you have downloaded Google Earth, you view my pictorial of New Year’s Eve by clicking here. Walking around the square, you noticed a certain calmness to the people. They walked with an ease and relaxation that was so comforting. Everywhere you looked, people had a gentle smile to their persona and, in the crisp whisper of the cold breeze, you could feel how peace reigned in the hearts of the entire country. Just like Christmas.
I began to feel a little left out. Being alone didn’t seem right. I kept thinking that I wanted to be with my family, with my loved ones, that somehow, that’s where I belonged. Just like Christmas.
The Chinese invented gunpowder and fireworks and Chinese New Year has a lot of fireworks. OK, that was understated. Chinese New Year has a whole-lot-of-buckets-raining-down-from-barrels-of-I’ve-never-seen-so-many-ga-gill-ion-wow-over-flowing-ness-and-even-more-than-that fireworks. The tradition comes from the idea that the loud bangs of the fireworks actually scare away the evil spirits. To launch fireworks is a sign of a blessing.
As human beings, we do things to help us become aware of God’s blessings. We don’t pray so that God will bless us, it is through prayer that we recall and recognize how God does bless us. It is a small but important distinction that distinguishes between religion and magic. Fireworks always capture the awe of the human person, but in the United States I’ve never attached spiritual significance to them. In their original context, here in Asia, fireworks are not mere entertainment, but similar to a prayer of blessing over someone. They are a way of demonstrating the goodness that reigns over someone and what better way that to see the blessedness of another human being than to see the night sky illuminated over them.
Walking around Beijing on Chinese New Year was indeed a lot like Christmas. It was the spirit of calm and peace that Christian’s feel when they sing “Silent Night.” Only, it isn’t very silent. Not at all. It is actually a little like walking through a drive by shooting. At first you flinch when you here the mortars going off, but then you just accept the sound and think, “This is what it must sound like in Bagdad, without all the love-and-peace-and-stuff.”
As empty as the streets (comparatively) were, I really felt the truth everyone was telling me. Chinese New Year is a time for family. There is no big ball drop like in Time Square. No “Dick Clark’s Rocking NewYear’s Eve.” I might as well go home and watch the state sponsored television broadcast of the National Gala like everyone else. It left me thinking, “So what is the FEELING that they kept talking about?”
Midnight makes it all clear. Don’t try going to sleep, the sound of fireworks won’t let you. Don’ stay inside, you’ll miss out. Fireworks everywhere! I went out to the street (you got to be a little careful at first… there is a nasty tendency for people for mortars to go off exactly where you want to walk, and in the darkness you can’t see anything. Firecrackers rip non-stop in the darkness. Overhead bombs burst with colorful exuberance. Caution must be paid to the paper shells that pelt you from above. But it is OK, you kind of laugh that people are so crazy.
And then you think… these fireworks are showing the blessedness that reigns over me. Life is glorious and it is glorious to be alive. But look down there, those people, they enjoy blessings too, and over there, and down that street, and over that hill, and as far as you can see in 360 degrees, the sky is illuminated with flashes of joy, signs of God’s blessedness all over people, the glory of life.
I started to cry. There was no fear. No animosity. No jealousy. No envy. You did not begrudge your neighbor for having bigger fireworks than you. As you looked down the street there was as much gladness for their good fortune as there was for your own. Thousands of individuals, all within sight, all celebrating who they were, and together, the summation of their individual celebrations became more than could ever be attained alone. It was that “FEELING” that everyone kept talking about. Happiness begins anew. The rhythm of your heartbeat dances in tempo with the explosion of a million blessings bursting and banging in the middle of the night, all to welcome the new, and present, year of the pig.
But the Chinese don’t stop with midnight. The next day continues the celebration. There is a Buddhist Temple in the middle of Beijing. I thought I would go there. I make a priority to learn about other religions after visiting the Catholic churches that I need to visit as a part of this pilgrimage. Having finished my work in China, I thought I would go and learn about Buddhism from a Buddhist monk. Yeah, well, going to the temple during Spring Festival to learn about Buddhism is like going to Chuckee Cheese Pizza to learn about Christianity.
The temple was filled with moneychangers (literally), games (with Pooh Bear as a prize), dancers, parades, drummers, food, trinkets, ice sculptures, flowers, and… joy. There was abundant joy on every face. The pictures were already downloaded on my earlier Google Earth pictorial, but if you would like a fresh look at them, click here. Remember, you need Google Earth downloaded on your computer first.
Chinese New Year. Such an important celebration for almost half the world’s population, while readily ignored by the other half. For those who are asked to celebrate Chinese New Year with a friend or colleague, know that what you are being invited to is special, even sacred. It may not be celebrated with the same intensity that it is in Asia, but there is the FEELING that comes over you when you take time to pause, and let joy fill your heart. We should always take time to welcome that into our lives.
There really is no comparison, because there is no equivalent, but if an American is forced to understand Chinese New Year, you would have to say that it is… well… like Christmas. Yeah, kind of like Christmas. Happy New Year everyone!