AAPI Month

Essay: Why Asian New Year Celebrations Are Important for Houston

Lunar and Solar New Year celebrations are a means of connecting with home and hope.

By Phoebe Suy Gibson

Lunar and Solar New Year celebrations are a means of connecting with home and hope. 

For Houston’s Asian diaspora, a community as diverse as the city itself, Lunar and Solar New Year celebrations are a means of connecting with home and hope. This year, it’s all about embracing community and optimism as celebrants move forward in some of Houston’s first in-person festivals since the pandemic started, gathering at community centers, temples and homes across the city.

Commemorated around the globe, Lunar New Year fell on Feb. 1, with many local celebrations observed the following weekend at places like Asia Society Texas Center and Asia Town’s Chinese Community Center. The holiday, also called Spring Festival, generally marks the second new moon after the winter solstice in December. For countries on a lunar-based calendar, such as China, Korea and Vietnam, the fresh start begins here.

Lunar New Year is a term that encompasses the diversity within the holiday, including Chinese New Year, Tết Nguyên Đán (Vietnamese New Year, also called Tết), and Korea’s Seollal, to name a few. 

Rather than marking the start of a new lunar calendar, Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, celebrate the onset of a new solar year. The meaning behind the holiday –– embracing and seeking blessing and prosperity – is much the same, just on a different timeline. Known as Songkran in Thailand, Khmer New Year in Cambodia or Pi Mai in Laos, Solar New Year celebrations typically take about three days and began April 14.

Asia is incredibly diverse, and Lunar and Solar New Year revelries are no exception. Each country that celebrates has “separate, unique cultures with long histories behind them,” says Stephanie Todd-Wong, Asia Society Texas Center’s director of communications and audience engagement.

And these individual cultures are finding more of a home in Houston, according to 2020 Census data. Per UnderstandingHouston.org, Asian Americans are the fastest growing people group in the Houston region, up from 358,000 people in 2010 to 548,000 in 2020.

For the Chinese Community Center’s Maggie Wong, whose family is from Hong Kong, some treasured traditions include the spring couplets paired with each symbolic year. Often displayed on bright red paper banners with gold calligraphy, spring couplets express well wishes and hopes for the year ahead. Since 2022 marks the Year of the Tiger, many of this year’s couplets will wish for vitality, strength or diligence.

In Korean culture, games are an important element, especially when it comes to celebrations, says Jennifer Kapral, Asia Society’s director of education and outreach. Asia Society’s event featured ddakji, a traditional South Korean game, in addition to other ways for folks to engage with the different cultures connected to the holiday.

Other Lunar New Year traditions include the giving of red envelopes filled with small amounts of money, sharing a New Year’s eve meal at home with family members and lion dancing, says Houston native Jessica Tsao.

Family dinners are a time for loved ones to gather and welcome the coming year together. Thoroughly cleaning the house beforehand and wearing brand-new red clothes (which represent good fortune and prosperity) are all keys to embracing the fresh start “with an air of cleanliness and positivity,” according to Tsao.

The hopefulness imbued in Chinese New Year carries over to other Asian New Year celebrations as well. “The belief is to get blessing, prosperity and life,” says Lisa Grimes, a Pasadena resident who serves at Wat Buddharangsey, one of the largest Cambodian Buddhist temples in the Houston area. “Whatever you wish for, just burn incense.” 

Grimes says she’s seen many Cambodians, like herself, migrating from the West and East coasts to find a home in or near Houston. 

Ultimately, Lunar and Solar New Year traditions across cultures are more alike than they are different. Wishing or praying for prosperity, paying respect to elders and enjoying traditional foods are all at the heart of each celebration.For first-generation and immigrant families, Lunar and Solar New Year ultimately serve as a time of remembrance, to hold tight to tradition in hopes of keeping it alive, according to Wong. 

“I think moving forward this year, we continue to embrace this [Asian] identity,” Wong says. “We’re celebrating this Asian community because we truly value it and see the value in it, what it gives to the Houston community.”

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