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2 Billion People Celebrate Lunar New Year. Your Class Can, Too (Opinion)

New York announced last fall that all its public schools will have a day off for Lunar New Year starting in the coming school year. Schools in the Empire State will thus be joining those in districts in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, and elsewhere that already officially recognize the holiday. The day off for students is part of growing school attention to a celebration important in many Asian nations and among people of Asian descent in the United States.

This subject is of special interest to me. I spent a number of years in China and am raising my two children biculturally—Chinese and American. (Their paternal family is from China.) Before celebrating the Lunar New Year in Beijing more than 10 years ago, I knew very little about the holiday. Now, as an educator and a parent, I am developing ways to bring the holiday into elementary classrooms, whether or not schools put the day on their official calendars.

Any holiday celebration should have a human touch, which is why a good place to start is by inviting people to your classroom who already celebrate Lunar New Year. That includes people of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Singaporean descent, among others.

To find someone, you might contact a local or regional Chinese American or Korean American club. The club may be willing to send a volunteer or two to share their culture as a guest. If not, some members may be interested in Zooming into the classroom or making a video of themselves sharing what they’d like the children to know.

Another approach to finding a holiday visitor (in person or virtual) is contacting a nearby college to seek faculty members or students with the appropriate background. Classroom visitors may be able to bring and explain traditional clothing, art objects, or significant household items from their country of origin. Something personalized like that is special and can be more engaging than watching a YouTube video.

If you have access to older students in your school, guardians or parents, or staff who celebrate Lunar New Year, invite them to share their traditions with the class. Welcome your students who celebrate the Lunar New Year at home to share their own perspectives on what is being discussed in class. Do they do the same as the class readings suggest? Not all Chinese partake in a dragon parade, for example.

On the eve or the first day of the new year, this year Feb. 10, have a variety of class activities centered around food, monetary gifts, family and friends, which are all key parts of the celebration.

Here are some ways to create a celebratory atmosphere:

  1. Music. Play traditional instrumental music in the background. (Students love this; many find it very calming.) Listen to a new year’s song on YouTube ( for instance, “Happy New Year” in Chinese), print the lyrics, and have students try to sing along to the music.
  2. Food. Food is central for the Lunar New Year, arguably the most important part of the holiday along with being with family.

    If you cannot spend money on takeout or are concerned about allergies, print photos of the myriad dishes that are popular at Lunar New Year in one or more countries. Cut them out and put them around the room or around a table and simulate a meal. If possible, identify them with labels including spicy/mild, sweet/sour/salty, fish/beef/pork/vegetarian, northern/southern. Students can play a game categorizing them or choosing the dishes that they will “eat” at their Lunar New Year “meal.” Students might choose foods based on appearances and write about what attracted them to these dishes.

    This is also an opportunity for students to become more culturally aware of Asian cuisines and respectful when discussing food that is less familiar to them. Foods should not be labeled as “gross” based on looks or ingredients but simply as “different.”

  3. Color. Red, symbolizing good luck and prosperity in Asian cultures, is associated with the new year. Invite students to wear the color red or if they do not have it, make red-colored cutouts that they can put on their shirts. Decorate the room with the color red.
  4. Language. Teach the students a common phrase or two used at Lunar New Year in Mandarin or another language that the holiday is celebrated in.
  5. Money in envelopes. Bright red envelopes with money inside symbolize good wishes and luck for the year ahead. They are often given at the new year, including prominently to children in a family. Kids can make the envelopes on their own using a printable template, and then the teacher can fill them with class cash or class coupons.
  6. Riddles. The end of Lunar New Year festivals is often marked by a lantern parade with the lanterns featuring riddles to be solved. Create curriculum-related (and age-appropriate) riddles and post them around the classroom for students to answer with a partner and collect Lunar-New-Year-themed prizes if they get them right. A prize could be something as simple as a homework pass with this year’s zodiac animal on it. This year is the year of the dragon for almost all the Asian zodiacs.

With engaging activities and human interactions like the ones I’ve outlined, we are promoting not only an understanding of the holiday but empathy toward people around the world who celebrate Lunar New Year. It’s a small step in our greater mission as educators to help create a society that welcomes people of diverse backgrounds and ways of life.

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