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Lunar new year is all about money, but that doesn’t mean it’s a shallow holiday

AP Photo/Hau Dinh
A time for settling debts, real or symbolic.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Happy new year! This week, people around the world are getting haircuts, buying new clothes, and stocking up on treats to fête the Year of the Monkey, which begins Feb. 8. Businesses across China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and their respective diasporas have shut down for the holidays. All of China is on vacation, and its economy is at a virtual standstill.

But money is even more on people’s minds than usual. In the US, lines are forming out the door in certain banks, as lunar new year celebrants withdraw crisp new bills to give as gifts, tucked inside ornate red envelopes. Dumplings, lucky to eat because they look like gold ingots, must be prepared. Symbolically expensive gifts must be exchanged. And on the first day of the year, the truly superstitious must avoid any activities that suggest loss, including cleaning house, sweeping the floor or washing their hair.

It’s all in stark contrast to Western tradition, which upholds the Gregorian new year, Jan. 1, as a time of high-minded resolutions for self-improvement. To a culture that seeks passion and fulfillment from work, the open pursuit of money at lunar new year can seem existentially pointless (paywall) and even vulgar.

But the lunar new year is also a time to settle debts. Western governments have fretted over China’s slowing growth in part because well-being in the West is tightly intertwined with the pursuit of wealth in the East. And this year, China’s economic success story may finally be coming apart, which doesn’t make anyone smile.

So even if you don’t normally celebrate the lunar new year, consider stopping in a temple, lighting some ghost money, and making the traditional wish for ”恭喜發財,” or ”Happiness and prosperity!”

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