I realized that this year, Chinese New Year and Lent were on the same day.
I found this to be ironic. Lots of people feasting on symbolic foods meant to bring abundance and luck in the New Year, while others begin a fast in order to in order to do penance for humanity’s betrayal of Jesus.
The dichotomy struck me. It is Yin and Yang–the world in balance. Some eat, drink and are merry, while others abstain and meditate upon the coming joy of Christ’s resurrection and the meaning it has for their lives today.
One thing I noticed in my musing is that Chinese New Year and Lent do have a food tradition in common: the consumption of fish.
A whole steamed or poached fish is always served as part of a Chinese New Year’s Eve feast, with the head and tail intact. This symbolizes a good beginning and end to the new year. It is best to choose a fish which is still alive, swimming in a tank, and great care is taken to choose one which is spirited, for it will bring more good fortune into the new year than one which is listless and sluggish, or worse, already dead.
Fish is eaten in Chinese New Year because the sound of the word for fish, “yu” is a homophone for the word for wish in Cantonese, so it symbolizes a desire for all of your wishes to come true in the new year. The word for fish, “yu” also sounds like the word for abundance, so it is a wish for a surplus of good things to come into a family’s life.
There is even more depth to the symbolism of a whole fish served at the traditional New Year’s dinner. As Grace Young points out in her book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, fish swim in pairs, and so can symbolize marital fidelity and harmony; a quick look at many traditional Chinese paintings will show a pair of carp swimming together in peaceful unity. Because fish lay many eggs, they are symbols of fertility, so they are wish for many children in a family.
For Catholics, fish is a substitute for meat, and is eaten on fast days, especially at Lent. In the aforementioned excellent blog entry over at Thorngrove, Christina outlines the history of why fish was substituted for meat during the Lenten season, so I won’t go into that. Suffice to say that Lent, which is about abstaining from pleasures, including those of the table, to muse upon the sacrifice Christ made for every human being. Fish became a substitute for meat, and because of that, it became symbolic of self-willed deprivation.
For myself, I have trouble seeing fish as symbolic of deprivation of pleasure–I love the stuff. I love it, that is when we are talking about real fish, not fish sticks–those God-awful creations of the frozen foodocrats are a blight upon the supermarket shelves and really do symbolize privation and want. I agree completely with Elesha Coffman writing in Christianity Today that being forced to eat fish sticks in the school cafeteria on Fridays during Lent instead of pizza is a trial for the schoolchild’s soul.
Later in that same article, Coffman notes that the use of fish in a spiritual fast was cause for great culinary creativity in the Medieval kitchen, and a French abbess is credited for the creation of the divine dish which I hesitate to categorize as “fish soup” called bouillabaisse. No one who tastes a well-crafted bouillabaisse could in any way call the dish a poor substitute for meat. In fact, were it myself, I’d take the fish soup and to heck with the meat.
That hardly seems penitent of me, but then, I was never Catholic and was barely raised Protestant, and am currently a heathen, so what do I know of it?
What I do find utterly fascinating is how fish can be considered the symbol of abundance and joy in one culture, and in another, be seen as a substitute for a preferred other food, and symbolic of personal sacrifice in the practice of a spiritual fast.
This dichotomy speaks clearly to the sacred function that food plays in cultures around the world and its centrality in the celebration or observance of holidays.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is probably no culture in the world which has a holiday in which food, by its presence or absence, does not take a central role in the rituals of that sacred time. I certainly can think of no such a holiday.
It is part of what draws me to the study of food–the meaning of it and its nature. It is a necessity for us to survive, yes, but it becomes so much more in every culture. It becomes a means of cementing family and communal bonds, a means of communication between human beings and the Divine.
It becomes a transmitter of culture–symbolism becomes very tightly wrapped in certain holiday foods, such that each mouthful brings with it layers of meaning that an eater can often only guess at. It becomes pleasure, treasure and art. It becomes something we do for fun, and something we do to escape reality, and something we do to remember our ancestors.
It becomes part of our expression of who and what we are.
So, at this moment, at this time when many people are feasting, and many others are fasting, when everyone is celebrating or observing the passage of time in ways that express who they are, I am in the midst of it all, filled with wonder to look upon this confluence of energies, and am content to observe, record and muse upon the meaning of it all.
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