I really like Spring Festival. Honestly. Every year I hear the arguments about the “crazy Chinese and their crazy fireworks”, but despite the noise (and limb-losing danger) I have to admit that I get a bit caught up in the season.
I suppose I’ve not been here long enough yet to truly understand what that holiday feeling is, certainly not to the extent my wife and her compatriots do. Being home for the Christmas season this past December, I saw this in reverse. My wife likes Christmas; she liked the food, the gifts and the family visits (mostly the first two). But I don’t think she can really understand that “Christmas feeling” like those who have grown up in the culture do. That feeling, even at my rather ripe age and lack of religious penchants, that something magical happens between Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning.
But even with the limits of cultural comprehension; by comparison, I think we can all get the significance of what this season brings. That warm feeling of family, a great connect that spans generations. For the young, a chance to get a bit of cash and some new clothes; for the old, an opportunity to look back and see how life and family has changed over the years.
What I’ve realized getting older is that there is a bit of a torch passed from generation to generation when it comes to holidays. When I was a child, Christmas dinner was usually at my grandparents’ house. As I got older this moved to my parents’ house, and the branches of the family tree slid up a notch. One day soon it will be held at mine or my sisters’ homes.
It is much the same in Chinese culture, with extended family all returning to their common patriarchical point at this time of year. Thinking about this the other day it occurred to me that this dynamic, which has surely been around for centuries in China (if not longer) is in transition to a unique period of Chinese history that may change the way in which holidays are celebrated here — namely, a very narrow family tree and much smaller family gatherings.
Looking at a common scenario now, you might head to a father’s parents’ house for dinner. He could have several siblings, making for a rather full house, particularly with the inclusion of the current generation’s kids. But when the grandparents die, the line gets shifted up, and you have the father’s son, who is married and has only one child. They’re now the only ones that come and visit for the holiday. Maybe aunts and uncles drop by with cousins.
Now looking on further still, we have a generation that has no brothers or sisters, and their children with no brothers and sisters and no cousins. Suddenly those holidays that a generation ago were a family reunion of sorts, have become just a visit to grandma and grandpa’s, or possibly just with the regular family you see every day.
It hit me that the one child policy has done more than restrict population growth and create stressful complications with the care for the elderly. It has also completely altered the family dynamic and how that relates to the celebration of traditional holidays.
I can’t help but think that there is a benefit to that family connection, a sense that we come from something much wider and deeper than just our immediate family. I’m fortunate that my soon-to-be born child, despite not having any Chinese aunts and uncles, will gain this from my side. However, he will be the exception among his Chinese friends. It’s hard not to feel that the whole thing is just a bit… lonely.