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Chinese New Year: A Clash of Culture and Faith?

By Leslie Koh


Photo by Angela Roma : https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-grandmother-spending-time-with-her-grandchildren-7364155/

Last year, my wife and I thought of putting up some Chinese New Year decorations on our door. Hanging up a cheerful red packet seemed okay, but we hesitated when we noticed that it featured an illustration of a rabbit (last new year being the Year of the Rabbit).


“Would it give our neighbours the impression that we believed in zodiac signs?” we wondered. “Or would they know it’s just a festive thing?”


It seemed a small matter, and some Christians might dismiss our worry and say we were overthinking. But I’m sure others would have much to say on this topic . . . so I won’t get into a debate over it.


Still, this little dilemma drove home the truth that it sometimes isn’t easy being an Asian Christian.


On the one hand, we follow the risen Christ, which means putting away “traditional” beliefs, superstition, idols, and other things that do not align with the Christian faith. On the other, we are still Asians—and proudly so! —with a distinctive culture and traditions that define our ethnicity.


This clash of cultures and beliefs often comes to the fore at Chinese New Year, when Chinese traditions come into full play, and some Chinese Christians find themselves caught between their faith and ethnic heritage.


Such a clash is difficult to resolve. While all Christians are guided by biblical principles, we may have differing opinions on what customs and traditions a Christian should or should not participate in. We have to live with some unresolved controversies.


Nevertheless, as a Chinese Christian, I personally find that some particularly meaningful Chinese New Year traditions—rabbit aside—do not clash with my faith in God. If anything, some of these fit in very well with what we believe.


Reunions: A Symbol of Unity


Let’s be honest: not all of us enjoy traditional reunion dinners! Meeting relatives we see only once a year, making small talk, and putting up with “nosey” questions can be tiresome.


Yet, these gatherings represent something very much biblical. As a family, we are united by blood or a common family name, just as Christians are united by a common faith and purpose.


Romans 12:5 is one of many verses in the Bible that emphasise unity: “In Christ we, though many, form one body.” Like it or not, we are part of the same family. Even if we do not “feel” the unity or share a strong emotional bond with some members of our earthly or spiritual family, let us appreciate them as gifts from God. Even the nosey aunties and uncles!


Buying New Things: A New Start


Some Chinese New Year traditions have always seemed rather wasteful to me—like buying and wearing new clothes. Others can be a chore, like spring cleaning. Then there are token gestures of paying off outstanding debts. Some of these seem merely symbolic.


Yet, they stand as physical reminders of the how important it is to put the past behind us and start the year with a clean slate. That’s also a biblical concept: it’s exactly what happens when we repent of our sins and accept God’s forgiveness and mercy.


No matter who we used to be or what we’ve done, we can let go of our guilt and the past. We’re completely forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Even if others aren’t willing to forget our past wrongdoings, we can take heart that we’re no longer condemned in God’s eyes (Romans 8:1). As Paul points out, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31).


We can thus start afresh, relying on the Holy Spirit to daily transform us to be more like Jesus. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it simply and powerfully: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”


We may not enjoy buying new clothes or cleaning our homes this season . . . but we can celebrate the fresh start that God has given us through Jesus!


Visiting Parents and Elders: A Show of Respect


For some, the annual visits to relatives, with the obligatory exchange of traditional greetings, oranges, and red packets can be a chore, just like reunion dinners. When I was young, some of these seemed meaningless, especially when I had to visit relatives I wasn’t close to.


Yet, I can always remember how happy some of the older folks were to see my parents and me, if only once a year. Perhaps they felt comfort knowing that they hadn’t been forgotten, and were being honoured and respected as senior family members.


That alone gives these customs meaning and places them in line with biblical principles. Along with honouring our parents (Exodus 20:12), the Bible calls on us to “show respect for the elderly” (Leviticus 19:32).


If anything, the joy we see etched on the faces of old folks when they see us can inspire us to visit them more often. That would be showing God’s love in a very real and practical way.


Seeing Tradition in a New Light


Many Asian traditions involve superstition or idol worship and even threaten to divide families. But that doesn’t mean that all our traditions are bad and ungodly. Many customs reflect and express good principles, even if they seem archaic to some of us.


We might debate the value of these traditions or have doubts about them, but it’s also worth looking at some of them in a new and positive light. We can use them to share God’s love and God’s ways, especially with those who do not yet know Him.


After all, God made each of us unique and with purpose. That includes our ethnicity and culture. With godly wisdom and discernment, I believe we can redeem some of these traditions to bring glory to God.


This article was first published in Spotlight Singapore © Our Daily Bread Ministries. For more articles like this, visit: https://odb.sg/spotlight/



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