Traditions should be enduring yet adaptive
On Chinese New Year's Eve, while many will gather for the reunion dinner, others will head for the airport or train station to "flee" from such festivities.
With a growing number of Singaporeans going on overseas tours during this time - some to give Chinese New Year celebrations a miss - the Chinese New Year holiday which used to be a lull period for travel agents has in recent years become a peak season.
Isn't Chinese New Year the most important traditional festival for the Chinese? Well, for those who choose to take flight, it means an opportunity to enjoy a holiday out of the country. The concern is, if even Chinese New Year can be ignored, what other traditional festivals cannot be disregarded?
Why do we need to preserve traditional festivals?
Firstly, they are inseparable from our ethnic identity. The Chinese, Malays and Indians all have their own traditional festivals from which they derive "a sense of belonging to a particular community". So if any Chinese does not see himself as one, there is no need for him to celebrate any Chinese festivals.
True, everyone has the right to reject traditions. The problem is: You cannot deny your ethnic origins or change your skin colour. We are born with a certain skin colour which cannot be "bleached"- if one has a "yellow face" and yet refuses to identify with the Chinese, who else can he or she identify with?
Secondly, the fundamental spirit of the more than 2000-year-old Chinese New Year is closely intertwined with the traditional culture and values of the Chinese. At its core is the Confucian value of"仁"or"benevolence"- to be "benevolent is what makes humans truly human". The word "仁"also means two persons or person-to-person when you break it up. In today's language, it can be described as
Traditional Chinese festivals invariably centre on maintaining and improving human relations.
Reunion dinner helps to deepen family ties while the exchange of gifts and greetings enhances relations between friends. To skip the reunion dinner and stay away from Chinese New Year means losing many great opportunities to forge stronger kinship and friendship ties.
On the other hand, people who grieve over and lament the loss of traditions would do well to do some re-thinking.
Are there elements in our traditions that have become outdated? Should we be more concerned about the meaning of a tradition or the form it takes?
To keep up with the fast-changing times, we can change the way a tradition is observed without it losing its meaning.
A tradition must be capable of being passed down from one generation to another. Yet this does not mean traditions cannot be changed. Over the years, the way Chinese New Year is celebrated has always been changing. The most obvious example is: We no longer light firecrackers.
Many found the ban hard to accept when it was first imposed here years ago. Without the sound and fury of firecrackers, they felt that Chinese New Year just seemed to have lost its festive atmosphere. But the lighting of firecrackers is by no means a must. Many big cities in China have introduced a similar ban.
As for the reunion dinner, it can be eaten at home or a restaurant. The venue is immaterial - the important thing is the presence of all family members.
To adapt a tradition to changing circumstances does not signal the demise of that tradition. On the contrary, it is by adapting that we can preserve and safeguard traditions. Of course, this must not be done at the expense of the true spirit of any traditions.
Even for people who prefer to take a holiday during the Chinese New Year period, some may do so only after having the reunion dinner and may visit places like China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan which also celebrate the festival. They are not shunning Chinese New Year as such, just spending it in other places. But those who do not even bother to have the reunion dinner may be "overdoing things a bit".
The sad thing is that some will deliberately pick some destinations with few or no Chinese at all. Well, if some people are determined to have nothing to do with traditions, there is not much that we can do.