Hanwen Zhang, Contributing Photographer

The Lunar New Year of the Rabbit has been on New Haven’s mind the past few weeks, bringing student celebrations and a thriving local scene. 

After a two-year hiatus, Connecticut’s 11th Lunarfest — the state’s largest annual Lunar New Year celebration — is back in person, bringing the brightest of city culture and holiday pride. The ensemble of celebrations featured a vibrant drum parade, speeches from local representatives and traditional lion dances.

“It’s a very rare opportunity to practice some form of tradition,” said Jodi Chen ’24, laughing at the sight of children mingling among themselves and with the dancers. “For me, I saw it as a sign of New Haven and Yale coming together to celebrate the Asian-American community coming out of the pandemic.”

The event was made possible by partnerships between the Yale-China Association, New Haven Museum, Town Green District, New Haven Free Public Library and city offices.

Various family-friendly and educational post-parade festivities ensued, including an open mic featuring Yale’s Asian-American spoken word group Jook Songs, calligraphy sessions, a shadow puppet show and animation workshop at the library and additional performances from the Ju Long Wushu lion dance troupe from South Windsor. The “Year of the Rabbit Discount Day” brought lower prices at stores along Whitney Ave on Jan. 28, while the Affinity Federal Credit Union distributed swag that embodied the prosperity, peace and love ascribed to a rabbit year.

As students like Chen, Michelle Luh ’25 and Michael Tu ’25 headed over to the intersection of Grove Street and Trumbull Street to attend Lunarfest after reading about it in a New Haven newsletter, others like Cindy Mei ’25 found community in close friends during a holiday typically spent with family members.

“Lunar New Year is a time for reconciliation and reunion, to share a meal together and [welcome] a new beginning,” Mei said. “I celebrated with friends on two different occasions: we ordered hot pot from Tiger Daddy on one day, and on another day a group of us rented the kitchen and made traditional favorites such as egg tarts, wonton noodles, and char siu from scratch.”

This was the second year that Mei celebrated without her parents, relatives and siblings. Over 800 miles away from her home in Chicago, she called them to 拜年 (bàinián), or pay her respects. However, the feeling of togetherness is a privilege that she does not take for granted. Though she misses decade-old family customs and festivities, she was grateful for the bonding experiences that came with late night calls and preparing meals with new families made at Yale.

Judy Nguyen ’26 missed the opportunity to go back to Vietnam with her family for celebrations, but she kept their love and creativity with her, seeking new ways to honor her culture. Last week, she and several friends stepped out on the Beinecke Plaza donning traditional Vietnamese áo dàis and holding up lì xì, or red envelope money, flooding Schwarzman with a sea of vibrant red and blue. The photoshoot was more than a fruitful time spent with friends, however — it was also a tiny slice of home that she took with her, a personal promise that wherever she goes, her wardrobe will always feature a few of her most homely, culturally significant pieces.

“It was a bit sad to be away from [family], but the Vietnamese community [at Yale] is my home away from home,” Nguyen wrote to the News. “We had a potluck in my Vietnamese Language L4 class so I got to eat all the traditional foods I was missing.”

Both Mei and Nguyen look forward to continue taking part in the month-long holiday through campus resources and events, made available by Yale Hospitality, student clubs and cultural houses.

Nguyen plans to attend a celebration at the Vietnamese Student Association this coming Feb. 4, and Mei enjoyed rambutans and lychees at the Jan. 26 Lunar New Year dinner in the dining halls, pleasantly surprised by the lantern decorations and noting the hospitality team’s incredible attention to commonly overlooked cultural details.

“CUSY [Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale] had a huge gathering [and] we all made dumplings from scratch at the Asian-American Cultural Center,” Mona Chen ’25 added, stating that the inclusivity of campus spaces saw participation across ethnicities and backgrounds, even for culturally-specific events. She found herself bonding with both fellow international students whom she already knew, as well as non-Chinese friends.

But for some students away from home, the start of the year has been a rather quiet one. Some students, like Tu, opted for stickers on dorm room doors in place of the round dinner tables and red packets that the holiday usually calls to mind.

Though James Lu ’24 was not able to attend the city Lunarfest and had to celebrate on his own this year, he found comfort in old memories, recalling the extravagant celebrations that he had first heard of as a child in China and the annual festivities throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Eighth Avenue and the Chinatown just a few blocks away from his home. Many of his family’s traditions have changed over time — sushi and even Swedish meatballs have now made the table, but the importance of family stays the same.

“Speaking frankly, I do feel as if Chinese New Year [in New Haven was] a lot more tempered down compared to the celebrations that … I would often see in … other areas,” said Lu.

Feng and Luh agreed, citing the demands of school life and distance from family as reasons for not going all out with their holiday endeavors. They have come to embrace the simultaneous individuality and universality of Lunar New Year, stating that its cultural significance should not undermine the fact that people have unique traditions, personal situations and preferences for celebration.

Despite the time zone differences and her busy schedule, Chen smiled when she received photos from her family of their celebrations back home. Her family is not big on traditional celebrations, and she described not having a particularly strong attachment to Lunar New Year growing up, but one thing rings true: a shared experience across the older and younger generations.

To her, the idea that Lunar New Year has to be about a specifically defined nuclear family is not necessarily true. Rather, she has learned to approach the 2023 Year of the Rabbit holding close her relationships and remembering to acknowledge the differences that can bring people together in unimaginable ways.

New Haven’s Lunarfest is Connecticut’s largest Lunar New Year-related event.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!