Needham Marks the Year of the Dragon

January 22, 2024
• Needham celebrated the Chinese New Year early, connecting to the culture through food, traditional crafts and a variety of performances.

Welcome to 2024, the Year of the Dragon.

The Chinese Friends of Needham, a nonprofit organization focused on youth leadership and sharing Chinese culture, hosted a Lunar New Year gathering at Newman Elementary School Saturday night.

Though the official start of the new year falls on Feb. 10, the holiday’s popularity and significance compelled organizer Dennis Zhang to hold their celebration ahead of time to ensure Needhamites and residents of surrounding communities could participate.

In the CFN’s 10th year, the celebration included a festival fair with hot bento boxes and games, as well as a series of performances featuring local talent, all in the name of community-building.

“A lot of young families, they don’t know many people here at all,” Zhang said, “and this is also a good chance for them to get to know each other.”

New England Championship Wushu Academy demonstrate their martial arts skills during the celebration. (Cameron Morsberger)

As performance groups rehearsed before the show, Needham parent Anica Law watched as her 7-year-old son Pax Kumar practiced his Chinese yo-yo in the auditorium.

Law said she remembers yo-yoing as a kid and growing up with “good exposure to my Chinese culture,” as her parents spoke fluent Mandarin. But as an American, that connection started to fade.

“I grew up here, and so I started to lose touch with my culture a little bit more,” Law said. “But when I find opportunities for my kids to get involved, it’s a great opportunity to expose them.”

Performing alongside other kids in the Needham Afterschool with Comprehensive Enrichment, or ACE, program, Pax balanced the yo-yo, which consists of an hourglass-shaped body that spins on a separate string attached to two rods. Pax threw the yo-yo in the air, catching it on the string when it fell.

“I like how it spins,” Pax said.

Hebe Zhang, 5, of Needham completed a sugar painting of a bunny during the Chinese New Year celebration. (Cameron Morsberger)

At the arts and crafts table, Lin Tao supervised sugar painting, an edible Chinese art created by forming two-dimensional shapes with hot liquid sugar on a bamboo stick. Kids designed butterflies, Hello Kitty and Peppa Pig using paper templates.

Families also tried Chinese paper cutting, as well as wooden puzzles for the event’s annual STEM activity.

Tao, a longtime member of the Chinese Friends of Needham, said managing the crafts is quite the process — she begins planning each activity months ahead of time before purchasing the materials and testing them at home. She also recruits a team of middle and high school volunteers to supervise on the day.

Needless to say, the celebration holds a special significance.

Dragon plushies decorated tables at Newman Elementary School during the Chinese New Year celebration. (Cameron Morsberger)

“This is the most exciting moment of the year to me,” Tao said.

The Chinese zodiac consists of 12 animals, who, as the folk tale goes, had to compete in a race to determine their order in the calendar. The dragon, though able to fly, finished in fifth place, having stopped mid-race to save villagers and a rabbit. The dragon has come to symbolize strength and good fortune.

To usher in what looks to be a special year, close to 300 people honored the annual tradition in Needham, some wearing red for good luck and lining up for goodies, including cotton candy and popcorn. Ying Murdoch, of Wellesley, remarked that the gathering “feels like Little Chinatown.”

It was Murdoch’s first year ringing in the new year in Needham, celebrating alongside her daughters Chloe, 9, and Charlotte, 6. She moved from China 15 years ago and considers herself equally American and Chinese.

As she raises her children in Massachusetts, Murdoch said she hopes to keep them connected to their Chinese identity.

“I want to make sure to pass down that tradition to my kids,” Murdoch said, “because even though they’re in the U.S., they were born here, they’re American, I still want Chinese as part of their heritage.”

Connie Xu and her dance troupe, Artisan Dance Academy, tapped into ancient Chinese history with a tambourine dance that dates back to ancient northwestern China, once along the Silk Road.

Dancers with the Artisan Dance Company perform a tambourine dance. (Cameron Morsberger)

They danced “to understand what happened there before” and pay homage to their ancestors, Xu said.

“It starts with a mystery setting and then all the lights start,” Xu said, describing the dance. “We invite people to dance. Usually, people dance in a circle.”

The auditorium buzzed with applause and joy during the evening’s 21 acts, which included dancers, singers, martial artists, musicians and more.

U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss’s District Director Dana Hanson presented the Chinese Friends of Needham with a certificate of recognition, and Rep. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, shared her enthusiasm for the event.

“Thank you for bringing and sharing your culture with the entirety of our Needham community,” Rausch said to attendees. “Especially as a fellow Needham resident, again, deep gratitude and a very happy New Year.”

Despite all the revelry and fanfare, Zhang said the heart of the Chinese New Year lies in the company.

“This is a chance for the whole community to come together and catch up on what’s going on,” Zhang said. “I especially love to see the kids growing up one year by one year. It’s just amazing… It’s one of the best memories of all.”

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