As a young Catholic, I have always wondered what does Chinese New Year have to do with Christianity. Is it really a culture for us Chinese, or is it some kind of cult practices, or occasions similar to Halloween that can be ignored by Christians?
Then I realised the answer is found in a pastoral letter I posted in 2006: Chinese New Year in Christian Context (1). Obviously, I did not understand what the letter was talking about until recently.
Tradition is important as it gives us our identity. Just as the Catholic Church has her own traditions passed down from the Apostles, so do the Chinese and all the races (and people) across the globe.
As a traditional practice for the non-Christian Chinese in particular the Buddhists on the eve of CNY, they would burn incense and give offerings to their gods as thanksgiving as well as presenting their requests and hopes for the new year. The same actually goes to us Chinese Catholics. On the first day of CNY, (most) Chinese Catholics would attend the Chinese New Year Thanksgiving Mass in the respective parishes (where the Chinese population is present). And we also have gifts offering to God during the Offertory.
Here are the explanations of the common gifts offered during CNY Mass:
1. The Bread and WineA colleague shared with me the complaints of an ex-lapsed Catholic who has just recently returned to church and went for Gawai (Harvest Festival of the Sarawak Natives) Thanksgiving Mass in June last year. It went something like this: "What are these fuss all about? The gongs, the sape's, the music and the noise... This is the House of God, why are they celebrating a pagan festival in the church?"
These will be turned into the Body and Blood of Christ at the Consecration. And at Holy Communion, we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ, the Risen Lord.
2. The Cake of the Year (年糕 "Nian Gao")
Made of pulut (glutinous) rice. Because of its glutinosity, is emblematic of eternal friendship. For us Christians, it means eternal friendship with God through our Baptism. Its stickiness is suggestive of a theory of standing by one another through thick and thin -- a universal brotherhood. Christians should stand by one another in Christ.
3. The New Year Oranges
Being fresh fruits, imply a new vigour and new lease of life. And for us Christians, it means that in the coming year we ask God to give us new vigour in our Christian life, and a new lease of life in Christ.
4. The Groundnut
The flower of life, and metaphorically it is called "Chang Sheng Guo" (長生果) - the nut of longevity. For us it means eternal life in Christ.
Signifies the offering of ourselves. It is the giving of the fruits of our labour to God.
Source: Order of the Mass booklet for Chinese New Year, Holy Trinity Church, Kenyalang Park
In my opinion, this is a wrong mentality. The very reason why the Dayak (natives of Sarawak and Sabah) Catholics celebrate the Harvest Festival (- a tradition) in the church is that they acknowledge God as the One who provided for them throughout the year. Therefore, at every Harvest Festival, a thanksgiving Mass is offered with rice, maize, tuak (rice wine), etc. being some of the gifts for the Offertory.
So are they wrong by putting God first and making Him the Lord of the Harvests?
The same goes to the Chinese Catholics. Is it wrong for us to thank the Lord and ask Him for His continuous blessings for another new year? All the merry-making is secondary; it is the reunion of family members, rekindling of old friendships and making of new ones that count.
Indeed, a lot of celebrations like these are already 'christianised' by the Malaysian Christians. Perhaps, a proof of an increasing faith in God for Christians in Malaysia. Or perhaps, that's what we call "inculturation."
Wishing all Chinese brothers and sisters a joyous and blessed Chinese New Year!
Read also: Chinese New Year in Christian Context (1)