Long ago, there was a ferocious demon named Nian locked in a remote mountain. Every 12 months, Nian would leave the mountain and eat people until the locals discovered that the demon was afraid of loud noises and red colors. People hung red lanterns and set off fireworks, terrorizing Nian, who would flee back to the mountain. For Chinese people, this day became known as “celebrating the new year” or Guo Nian, meaning “survive the demon Nian.” It is the most important time in the Chinese year.
Chinese months are reckoned by the lunar calendar, with each month beginning on the darkest day. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is brightest. In China, people may take weeks of holiday from work to prepare for and celebrate the New Year.
2010 is the year of the Tiger. It began on February 14, 2010 and ends on February 2, 2011. The Chinese New Year is the second new moon after the winter solstice. It is based strictly on astronomical observations, and has nothing to do with the Pope, emperors, animals or myths. Due to its scientific and mathematical nature, we can easily and precisely calculate backward or forward for thousands of years.
Legend has it that Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. I was born in the year of the Ox, my husband in the year of the Rooster—a very auspicious pairing! Specifically, I am an Earth Ox, while he is a Fire Rooster, so I guess that’s good. Whew. You can find your own Chinese zodiac sign here.
It is thought that people born under this third sign of the Chinese zodiac are physically powerful, gracious, independent and brave, and very bold. They are friendly and loving but can also selfish and short tempered. Tigers seek attention and power; frequently they are envious in a relation. Tigers live dangerously which often leads to trouble. They are intolerant, take risks and are always searching for excitement. Tigers are also instilled with a good dose of courage.
Year of the Tiger means big changes ahead, but let’s face it—doesn’t every year? The tiger is a sign of bravery. This courageous and fiery fighter is admired by the ancient Chinese as the sign that keeps away the three main tragedies of a household. These are fire, thieves and ghosts. At least we won’t have to worry about those three this year! In Chinese astrology the tiger is one of the most dynamic and powerful signs. Its nature is unpredictable, courageous, and explosive. Therefore, the year of the Tiger is usually associated with big changes and social disorder; 2010 is likely to be a turbulent year—on both a global and a personal level. Just what we need!
The most common way to wish someone a Happy New Year is Gong Xi Fa Cai in Mandarin or Gong Hey Fat Choy in Cantonese.
Gong Xi – are good wishes or congratulations
Fa Cai – to become rich, acquire wealth
So together it means “best and prosperous wishes” for the coming year.
Each day of the New Year’s celebration requires a different observance. Today, the Second Day, is for married daughters to visit their birth parents. Traditionally, daughters who have been married may not have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently.
On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods. They are extra kind to dogs and feed them well as it is believed that the second day is the birthday of all dogs. (Note to self: Give Zorro an extra good treat today, because he is the best big dog ever!)
At Chinese New Year celebrations people wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom. Long ago, people in China lit bamboo stalks, believing that the crackling flames would frighten evil spirits.
In China, the New Year is a time of family reunion. Family members gather at each other’s homes for visits and shared meals, most significantly a feast on New Year’s Eve. In the United States, however, many early Chinese immigrants arrived without their families, and found a sense of community through neighborhood associations instead. Today, many Chinese-American neighborhood associations host banquets and other New Year events.
The lantern festival is held on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Some of the lanterns may be works of art, painted with birds, animals, flowers, zodiac signs, and scenes from legend and history. People hang glowing lanterns in temples, and carry lanterns to an evening parade under the light of the full moon.
In many areas the highlight of the lantern festival is the dragon dance. The dragon—which might stretch a hundred feet long—is typically made of silk, paper, and bamboo. Traditionally the dragon is held aloft by young men who dance as they guide the colorful beast through the streets. In the United States, where the New Year is celebrated with a shortened schedule, the dragon dance always takes place on a weekend. In addition, many Chinese-American communities have added American parade elements such as marching bands and floats.
RED ENVELOPES (lai see)
The ritual of exchanging red envelopes has its roots in traditional Chinese folklore and culture. The color red symbolizes good fortune and power and is used for celebrations to convey blessings and positive energy and to diffuse negative energy. Its rectangular shape resembles that of ancient shields and symbolizes protection. During the Chinese New Year celebration children (and adults too, at least in my household!) are gifted with money in red envelopes. To receive money in a red envelope is considered to be lucky for the person who gives it and for the person who receives it.
The New Year’s Eve dinner is very sumptuous and traditionally includes chicken and fish. The fish is not eaten completely (and the remainder is stored overnight), as the Chinese phrase “may there be surpluses every year.”
Oranges and Tangerines
Etiquette dictates that you must bring a bag of oranges and tangerines and enclose a lai see when visiting family or friends anytime during the two-week long Chinese New Year celebration. Tangerines with leaves intact assure that one’s relationship with the other remains secure. For newlyweds, this represents the branching of the couple into a family with many children. Oranges and tangerines are symbols for abundant happiness.
The candy tray arranged in either a circle or octagon is called “The Tray of Togetherness” and has a dazzling array of candy to start the New Year sweetly. After taking several pieces of candy from the tray, adults places a red envelope (lai see) on the center compartment of the tray. Each item represents some kind of good fortune. ( I was once in China during the Lunar New Year, in a “show village.” There was a seemingly ancient old woman there who insisted we visit her house. She was very proud of her TV set and her photo of Michael Jackson on the wall (?!). As honored guests we were served from one of these candy trays, and were obliged to partake. Well, that was almost the end of my trip– never got so sick in my life! Or maybe it was the cha su bao?)
Prior to New Year’s Day, Chinese families decorate their living rooms with vases of pretty blossoms, platters of oranges and tangerines and a candy tray with eight varieties of dried sweet fruit. On walls and doors are poetic couplets, happy wishes written on red paper. These messages sound better than the typical fortune cookie messages. For instance, “May you enjoy continuous good health” and “May the Star of Happiness, the Star of Wealth and the Star of Longevity shine on you” are especially positive couplets. Even though I can’t have Christmas decorations, I go all out for these! And the gaudier the better.
Plants and Flowers
Flowers are believed to be symbolic of wealth and high positions in one’s career. Lucky is the home with a plant that blooms on New Year’s Day, for that foretells a year of prosperity. Plum blossoms just starting to bloom are arranged with bamboo and pine sprigs. The plum blossom also signifies reliability and perseverance; the bamboo is known for its compatibility and its flexibility, and the evergreen pine evokes longevity and steadiness. Other highly prized flowers are the pussy willow, azalea, peony and water lily or narcissus.
The Chinese firmly believe that without flowers, there would be no formation of any fruits. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to have flowers and floral decorations. They are the emblems of reawakening of nature, they are also intimately connected with the wish for happiness during the ensuing year.
DANCES AND PARADES AND NOISE
The Dragon Dances begin on New Year’s Day, and continue throughout the festivities for the next fifteen days. All Chinese New Year parades end with the Dragon Dance. A cloth dragon is held on poles by a team of a dozen or more members who make the dragon “dance” by raising and lowering the poles.
Dragons are an important aspect of the culture and tradition. They were once Imperial symbols in ancient China and have come to signify wealth, wisdom, power and nobility.
The Dragon Dance Parade brings good luck and prosperity for the coming year and is an essential ingredient of any Chinese New Year Celebration.
The Chinese Lion Dance is often mixed up with the Chinese Dragon Dance.
The Dragon Dance is performed by a team of ten or more dancers, whereas the Lion Dance team consists of only two. The Lion Dancers perform to the sound of drums for the first three to five days of the New Year. They dance in front of stores and businesses to scare off the evil spirits and to bring good luck to everyone.
Firecrackers are an important part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. They are lit in front of houses and stores, so that the evil spirits are scared away from the loud noises.
At parades, lion dances and dragon dances, firecrackers are lit up so they drive away the wicked beings and the “bad luck”. Another legend is that the firecrackers will awake the dragon that will bring the spring rain for an auspicious beginning of the growing season. Whatever the origins, Firecrackers provide the happy ending to the parades and dances and are a must for the joyous atmosphere of the celebrations, but to be honest, this is my least favorite tradition–ouch!
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