Holiday celebrations are not a zero-sum game
Due to a clerical error, my birthday was wrongly recorded, resulting in some people celebrating my birthday using the date of the lunar calendar and others the date of the solar calendar. I have tried to clarify and correct this in the past. But now I am in my mostly unglamorous middle-age life, I have given up trying to correct people, since I figure I can use all the celebrations I get. They just provide an excuse for having a good time with friends and family.
This segues to another topic, one that seems to vex some Chinese: Should we embrace Western holidays or Chinese ones? This question reappears every time a Western holiday is observed. Some of these are religious holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Then there are Valentine's Day, Halloween, Mother's Day, and Father's Day, which are also gaining popularity.
Some argue that such holidays should not be celebrated as China has its own Valentine's Day on July 7 in the lunar calendar and its own equivalent to Thanksgiving, the Mid-autumn Festival. As an ancient culture, we have days for celebrating our ancestors, Tomb Sweeping Festival; the elderly, Double Ninth Day; teachers on Sept 10; workers, on May 1; women on March 8, and children on June 1. There is a holiday for almost everyone, even the dead on lunar July 15 in many regions, everyone except perhaps middle-aged men, which explains why I no longer mind people celebrating my birthday several times a year.
This year, the competition between festivals is intensified as Valentines' Day on Feb 14 comes just before Lunar New Year's Eve on Feb 15. Which one to celebrate? Both. Eat your sweetheart's chocolate, and then your mom's sugar snacks. That would be unhealthy, you worry. Then consider resuscitating those New Year resolutions with the coming of the Lunar New Year. Go back to dieting and exercise, and then the excuses when they don't stick.
The simple rationale for multiple celebrations is that every day is a day to be celebrated. Being alive is a blessing that should not be taken for granted. Not everyone woke up this morning. For many, life gives plenty of sadness and misery. When we come across people celebrating, not interrupting them is the least we can do.
Would Samuel P. Huntington see a clash of civilizations in giving loved one roses one day and "red packet" gifts the next day? Probably not. If he did, it would be his problem, not ours. Cultural borders are not as clearly marked as geographical ones. Many assume that Christmas, for instance, is only a Western tradition. But according to Philip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity, Christianity in China dates back at least to 550 AD, when China was known for embracing multiple cultures.
In our nostalgia, many of us feel that Chinese New Year has lost some of the celebratory flavors we used to remember. People wrongly blame foreign festivals for this loss. A greater cause of the loss is increased mobility, which has dispersed families and made family gatherings difficult. Then there is the market. You can now buy most holiday snacks instead of taking your time making them around the table as a family. Many New Year traditions are based on the limitations of the agricultural society. Some of the loss is due to China's industrialization process. As Chinese society changes, we are creating new traditions.
Globalization enriches Chinese society. This year marks the 40th anniversary of reform and opening-up. Over the past four decades, China has been an increasingly multicultural society. The increased exchanges between peoples introduce us to the heritages of other cultures. Festivals do not cannibalize each other. Holiday celebrations are not a zero-sum game in which observing one holiday will hurt the celebrating of others. The opposite may be true. When we celebrate Thanksgiving we celebrate gratitude, which psychologists say is the single greatest contributor to happiness. A grateful person would not object to celebrating the Double Ninth Festival when we express gratitude for the elderly. While differences in festivals abound, the spirit and humanity underlying the festivities of different nations are remarkably similar.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.