It’s the rare photograph of the Chinese New Year that isn’t dripping with vivid color: here the golden beard of a dragon, there the neon confetti lining the streets and everywhere the red of good fortune and happiness. These photographs of a Chinese New Year celebration in 1946 may be devoid of color, but they are rich in detail: the precision of a calligrapher’s brush, the excitement of children receiving envelopes filled with money, the smoke of a firecracker thrown in the street.
All that can be gleaned from these photos lives within these details, as they were never published in LIFE, and no notes remain to put names to faces or even identify the locale where they were shot. The photographer, George Lacks, spent much of his career in Shanghai, but traveled widely throughout China during his years stationed abroad.
The festivities depicted in Lacks’ work reflect a simpler time, before corporate interests tried to get a bite of the sticky cake. This year, Panda Express will use the holiday to promote its restaurants by handing out red envelopes with coupons inside. Godiva is selling chocolate gift boxes commemorating the Year of the Goat, blending Belgian flavors with Chinese spices.
Even during the 1950s and ‘60s, the ads in LIFE’s pages spoke to a kind of co-opting of the new year for commercial gain. Chun King Frozen Foods, the self-proclaimed “Royalty of American-Oriental foods,” used the new year as an opportunity to encourage LIFE’s readers to buy their Americanized versions of fried rice, chicken chow mein and egg foo young. (“Put a little China on your table every night,” their motto went.) A 1968 tourism advertisement for the state of Minnesota boasted the state’s celebration of the Chinese New Year as evidence of its people’s love of celebrations, even those borrowed from other cultures.
Lacks’ photos focus on time spent with family and respect for tradition, sentiments still omnipresent in today’s celebrations—only now, capitalist America throws in a coupon or two for good measure.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.