By James Morgante
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Christmas season is upon us while Lunar New Year, which begins on Feb. 16, 2018, seems far away. Nevertheless, the two are closely related, which is something important to consider now.
Both are about overcoming evil and death. In the case of Christmas, this is implied because the birth of Jesus would never be celebrated if the story of Jesus didn’t end with victory over death. In the case of Lunar New Year, victory over evil and death is more immediately visible through the founding myth about the monster, Nian. Each New Year, the monster comes and preys on people until a wise person instructs the people about how to get rid of him — by making loud noises and displaying the color red. When they do so, Nian runs away, paving the way for prosperity in the coming year.
The inner connection between Christmas and Lunar New Year is, in fact, complementary. Christmas is about a god (or a human-divine god) who intervenes to overcome death. Lunar New Year is about people working together to prevent evil and death from taking place. The complementary relationship between intervention and prevention is an important theme in the human cultural history. In ancient Greece, for example, there were two complementary traditions about health and healing — the traditions of Asclepius and Hygeia. Asclepius was the god of healing, who intervened to provide a cure when sick people entreated him for assistance. Hygeia, in contrast, was the goddess of health, who taught about the wise rules of living.
Once instructed by Hygeia, people were themselves responsible for preventing illness. The two traditions, however, work together in that prevention is not a panacea, or cure-all. In the case of acute illness or accidents, the skills of the intervening physician become necessary.
In a similar way, Christmas and Lunar New Year demonstrate complementary responses to the problem of evil and death. The final solution may well lie within the domain of the gods, but humans have a resistant and preventive role to play. In this sense, Lunar New Year, like Christmas, has a world-cultural significance transcending its culture of origin.
The time has come to assert Lunar New Year’s inner significance, as well as its world-cultural importance. Let the story of Nian become a focus by having him appear at the festival’s beginning in a dramatization in Hing Hay Park that ends with him running away down the street and out of sight. Then let the theme of preventing evil and death become visible by drawing attention to the many contributions of Asian culture that promote health and wellbeing, and ward off sickness (death’s little brother) — cuisine, traditional medicine, and the use of herbs and even forms of movement like Tai Ji and the martial arts. Let the sampling that takes place extend to all of these examples of Asian wisdom. To do this will take deliberation and planning. But when Lunar New Year does arrive, the festival can be celebrated in a way that is both worthy of its significance and tangibly relevant to everyone.