Lunar new year celebrations in Helsinki 2022/ City of Helsinki, Petri Anttila

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In a move that has taken many by surprise, It was revealed recently that the City of Helsinki had made a decision for the discontinuation of its Lunar New Year celebrations, a tradition that for the past 16 years has not only painted the city with vibrant colours and festivity but also served as a bridge between cultures, bringing together people from various backgrounds to celebrate the most significant time of the year for many Asian communities.

This decision marks a significant shift in the city's cultural policy, sparking a conversation about the importance of maintaining and supporting multicultural events in a globalised world.

Celebration of the Lunar New Year in Helsinki and supported by the city was initiated by the previous mayor Jussi Pajunen with the purpose of reflecting Helsinki's commitment to cultural diversity and inclusion and adding to the attractiveness of the city for Chinese and other tourists. For 16 years, Helsinki's Lunar New Year event has been a highlight of the city's cultural calendar, drawing thousands to experience and participate in the rich traditions of the Lunar New Year. The event not only provided a space for the Finnish-Chinese community and other Asian residents to celebrate their heritage but also offered a valuable opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding among Helsinki's diverse population.

Stuba Nikula, head of Helsinki Events told Helsinki Times that the decision was made by the city officials without any explanation. City of Helsinki was sponsoring the event by 70 000 euros a year. Mikula says that the total budget of the Helsinki Events, which functions as a foundation is around 9 million euros a year. Half of this amount comes from the city of Helsinki and the other half mainly from ticket sales of major event such as ”The Helsinki Festival” which is a one week multi-venue event with concerts and exhibitions and ”Tuoman Markinat” i.e. the Christmas Fair which is organised by the city, but vendors have to pay for the stands. So the money spent on Lunar New Year celebrations has been a minor dent in the annual budget.

The decision to cancel the Lunar New Year celebrations raises important questions about the allocation of support and recognition for cultural events within the city. While one argument uttered by the city has been ”the intention to broaden the scope of celebrated cultures” is commendable, the removal of a well-established and popular event may not effectively promote cultural inclusivity. Instead, it could signal a step back in the recognition and appreciation of the diverse cultural landscapes that exist within urban centres.

As it turns out, the city does not have a strategy or any plans to ”broaden the scope” to other cultures and there will not be a celebration of Nowruz, Diwali or St. Patrick’s Day or Eid al-Fitr coming to Helsinki anytime soon. Instead, according to Nikula, the city wants NGO’s and cultural communities to arrange their own events and apply for funding for it; not necessarily from the City, but other sources.

The photo taken on February 17, 2024 shows Chinese folk artists performing a fire dragon dance to celebrate the Lunar New Year on a street in Luoyang, in central China's Henan province. (Photo by AFP) / China Out

 

Lunar New Year, with its roots deeply embedded in ancient traditions, is a festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar. It is a time for family reunions, honouring ancestors, and welcoming a year filled with luck and prosperity. Originating in China over 3,000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty, the celebration is steeped in myths and customs. The most famous legend is that of Nian, a beast that was said to devour crops, livestock, and even villagers on New Year's Eve. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food at their doorsteps, believing that after eating, Nian would no longer attack people. Over time, this evolved into a festival of its own, with fireworks and red decorations used to scare away evil spirits and bring good fortune.

Today, Lunar New Year is celebrated not just in China, but across many countries in Asia and the world, including Vietnam (Tết), Korea (Seollal), Mongolia (Tsagaan Sar), and among diaspora communities globally. Each country and community adds its unique customs to the celebration, creating a rich tapestry of cultural expressions that highlight the diversity and vibrancy of Asian traditions.

In Vietnam, Tết ushers in the New Year with customs such as cleaning the home to rid it of bad luck, preparing special holiday foods, and paying respects to ancestors. Korea's Seollal involves bowing to elders as a sign of respect and playing traditional games. Mongolia's Tsagaan Sar is marked by elaborate preparations and rituals that focus on family and the renewal of ties. These celebrations, though varied, share common themes of hope, renewal, and the strengthening of family bonds.

The significance of the Lunar New Year to its many celebrants can be likened to major holidays in other cultures, serving as a crucial time for reflection, renewal, and connection. The cancellation of the public celebration in Helsinki not only diminishes the visibility of Asian cultures in the city's public life but also impacts the sense of community and belonging among residents who look forward to the event as a highlight of their cultural calendar.

As Helsinki and other cities around the world navigate the challenges of representing an increasingly diverse populace, the key will be to find ways to support and celebrate the multitude of cultures that make up the urban fabric without sidelining established traditions. Expanding the cultural calendar to include a wider variety of events while also preserving and supporting long-standing celebrations like the Lunar New Year could offer a more balanced approach to cultural inclusivity.

Nikula would not make any assumptions if there were any political reasons behind discontinuation of the Lunar new year celebrations. Finland however, frightened and overzealous with NATO membership, is sliding down a dark alley of self-censorship and extremely one sided world view contributing actively to a divided world.

 

HT

 

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