Friday, March 8, 2013

The Year in Festivals

While I like to think I'm spontaneous and up for most things (really though, I hate surprises) and I definitely think "variety is the spice of life", I have a significant reverence for tradition and ritual. I like to cling to anything that can stay constant in my life or remind me of places I don't get to see anymore. I also want Ishmael to be able to experience some of the culturally enriching things that I did as a child, as well as give him days to look forward to all throughout the year that will be both fun and a learning experience.

My mom was really good about family traditions and observance of special days, even if they weren't always expressed in grandiose ways (which I appreciate and plan to continue the low-keyness!). I think it often made me roll my eyes as a kid (especially in my early teens, I imagine) when she would make everyone write down their thanks in a book at Thanksgiving, for example, but of course, I would now love to do that with my family too. Go mom! 

Here I've compiled a list (in calendar order) of festivals and holidays outside of those regularly observed in America that I either grew up celebrating or would like to incorporate into our family traditions. Many of these have pagan roots or customs affiliated with them, or are dedicated gods other than the one I believe in, so we won't be observing these holidays in honor of those gods or partaking in the customs that may constitute idol worship, etc., just to clarify. I don't know how exactly I will explain to my kids why we're doing fun activities on such and such a day, just yet, but maybe we'll just make it an opportunity to connect with our friends of the corresponding cultures and learn about the country of the festival's origin. 

Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), China, ~January-February
This is definitely China's largest observed holiday and there are way too many traditions to go in to here, but one of the most fun things is that each year has an animal from the Chinese zodiac that corresponds with it. This year is the year of the snake, and last year was the year of the dragon. My biggest memories of Chinese New Year in China probably revolve around fire crackers. Tons and tons of firecrackers. I also remember walking up the 6 flights of stairs to our apartment in Kashgar and seeing which of the apartments had banners on their doors. In Hong Kong (when I was much younger), they had elaborate firework displays and dragon dances. Red envelopes filled with candy and money are often given too. For me now, Chinese New Year is a good excuse to get together with my family and Chinese friends and make food and talk about China memories. I hear there's a pretty decent parade in San Francisco (that we barely missed on our honeymoon last year) which would be fun to go to sometime. My friend Tanya has several recent posts on her blog about Chinese New Year, and here (1, 2) are some guides on the food. 

Holi (Festival of Colors), India, ~February-March
Thanks to hipster engagement shoots, you probably know about this holiday. It is celebrated mainly in India and Nepal and corresponds with the full moon. It is proceeded by (and is in reverence of) bonfires, and is a celebration of Spring, as with Noruz (see below). The colorful powders thrown during this holiday are supposed to mirror the colors of the world bursting into bloom during spring time. I love that there is a widely observed celebration in honor of colors. Anyway, this would obviously be fun to celebrate with kids, but in recent years, toxic chemicals in color dyes, that have replaced natural dyes, have become a hazard during this festival, so be sure to use safe materials in a place semi-easy to clean! 

Noruz (Persian New Year), Persia, ~March 21
The first day of spring and the beginning of the Iranian calendar, this holiday is thought to have been "invented" by Zoroaster and is celebrated throughout the Middle East, parts of China, and India. The celebration of Noruz is generally proceeded by spring cleaning, and then it's customary to go visit your neighbors and relatives (about 30 minute visits), starting with the most elderly first. Traditional foods include Kuku, a walnut and green herb souffle, and a green herb and fish polo called Sabzi. We will probably sit on the floor and eat with our hands and pray after the meal, as is the general custom of the Tajik. We will NOT be jumping over fires (to rid ourselves of evil spirits), one of the more recognizable traditions of Noruz, but perhaps we could build a bonfire just for fun. 

Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Passover, somewhat Jewish, ~March-April
Growing up, we didn't have fully traditional Seder meals, but my mom would usually organize a reading and reenactment of the plagues, followed by a Seder-like meal. It's a pretty fond memory of mine, finding "blood" in the sinks and toilet, plastic frogs littering the living room, and our family and friends "passing out" on the couches with fake red boil marks on our skin. Then we loved dipping our green onions in salt water, along with the rest of the meal. I'm looking forward to keeping that tradition alive with my kids, along with the Easter egg advent my mom did with us - just like at Christmas, we had a period of days leading up to Easter during which we would open an egg each day that contained part of the Easter story, along with a small object (a silver coin for Judas' betrayal, a mini crown of thorns made from a rose bush) to illustrate the story. We only observed lent once, as a family, but it too was memorable as we gave up sugar as a family, and I personally gave up fashion magazines at the suggestion of my dad (I barely survived). I have never celebrated Mardi Gras (which is not just a flashing booze fest), and the whole idea of massively indulging before lent seems kind of silly, but especially for kids, I think I could find some sort of lesson in allowing a day of more-than-usual sugar or red meat consumption before the fast from those things. Mardi Gras also has some fun food traditions that I'd like to incorporate, such as King's Cake, as well as generally fabulous Cajun food, such as crepes, paella, and Mardi Gras food-cart snow cones. And did you know that during traditional lent, Sundays (or the Sabbath) are feast days rather than fast days? I might have to look into the logic of that more, later. 

Songkran ("Water Fight Festival"), Thailand, April 13-15

Yet another New Year's celebration, this one (to my understanding) is celebrated mainly in Thailand, though there are about 3 other countries who observe this New Year as well. It falls at the end of the dry season, during the hottest part of the year. Although the festival has more religious roots, it is mostly celebrated by having a huge city-wide water fight now (at least by young people). I hope our neighbors appreciate being doused by the house when they walk by. Of course, we'll have to make Thai food for dinner too, or invite ourselves over to our Thai friends' homes. 

Children's Day, China, June 1st. 
Celebrated in 70+ countries, Children's Day manifests itself in many, many ways, I am sure. Did you know we have a Children's Day in the U.S. that predates both Mother and Father's Day? Obviously, it's not celebrated on a national level here, but we sure did enjoy it in China! In fact, in 2000, my family went to the Urumqi (where we lived at the time) orphanage on Children's day to help pass out fun stuff to the kids. I was 8 at the time, so I feel like my memory must be wonky, given the dates, but I remember that as the day I found my youngest sister, Julia, in the quarantine ward, who we later adopted. But like I said, she was only a few weeks old when she came to live with us, and her official birthday (though we know it's several weeks early) is in December. I think we observed Children's Day once or twice as a family, and I seem to remember my mom, being the practical lady she is, giving us new backpacks and pencils, and probably about 3 pieces of candy. Which sounds like a great idea to me, now that I'm a mom too. Chinese kids usually get this day off from school, too. If I'm a cool mom, maybe I'll pull my kids out of school and take them on a family field trip that day. [This picture looks like it came straight out of my experience in Chinese pre-school.]

Mid-Autum Festival ("Moon Cake Festival"), China, ~September/October
Traditionally, this festival is to celebrate the harvest and a time to worship the moon, as well as a time for thanksgiving and matchmaking. I'm more into the moon cakes though, preferably Starbucks', Haagen Dasz', or lychee, coconut, mango and lemon curd by brands like Mai Que (sp?), as opposed to the traditional black sesame, red bean, egg yolk, etc. Moon cakes are an enormous industry in China and get super crazy, like Hong Kong's G.O.D. brand which took things literally and made a series of butt-shaped "mooning" cakes, which I will not link to, you are welcome. Moon cakes can be very expensive as well as very beautiful, but most of them are pretty yucky. Imagine a box of unlabeled chocolates, and having to try 9 gross ones to get to the one good one - that kind of sums it up. I've never had a good moon cake outside of China. Two other things associated with the Mid-Autumn festival are pretty lanterns and baby taro (and I love my taro!). Perhaps I will try my hand at a taro ice cream moon cake one of these years, despite the fact that every time I've tried to cook taro so far, it has not gone well. 

Dong Zhi Festival (Winter Solstice Festival), China, December 22
I originally thought this festival was called "Dong Er Jie" which means "frozen ear holiday" because it is common to eat dumplings (that slightly resemble ears) on this day, supposedly the coldest of the year. If you don't, your ears will freeze off! According to wikipedia, the whole ear story isn't quite the same and the holiday is really much more about the winter solstice in general. In fact, jiao zi (dumplings) aren't even the number one most common thing you would eat (glutinous rice balls, bleh) on this holiday, but I personally like the version I grew up with. 

There are still more that I'd like to do more research on, including Ramadan, Diwali, other Jewish holidays, the Chinese "longevity noodle" for birthdays, and other monthly Chinese festivals. I'm preparing an entirely separate post just about Christmas, for another time. 

What do you celebrate in your family, and what traditions would you like to introduce or pass on to your children?

Image credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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