Chinese New Year

Posted By | Posted On Feb 05, 2008

The celebration of Chinese New Year is right around the corner. Prepare to say goodbye to the Year of the Pig, and to usher in the Year of the Rat. Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the most important of the traditional holidays celebrated in countries with a large Chinese population, as well as in cities here in the States with sizable Chinatowns. The actual date of Chinese New Year is determined by the lunisolar Chinese calendar. It begins on the first day of the new year containing a new moon, and ends fourteen days later with a celebration known as the Lantern Festival. In our western Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year, always between January 21, and February 20th. In 2008, it begins on February 7.

The word for “year” in Chinese is “nian”. According to legend, in ancient China the “nian” was a man-eating beast from the mountains, which came out every twelve months to prey on humans. It was thought that the “nian” was sensitive to loud noises and the color red, so people tried to keep it at bay with red colored fireworks. “Guo Nian” means to “celebrate the New Year” but its literal translation is the “passing of the nian”

Red clothing is worn throughout Chinese New Year because it is believed that red will scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. Certain activities are considered to be bad luck during this period. Buying a pair of shoes is bad luck. The word for shoe is similar to the Chinese word for evil. Likewise, it is bad luck to buy a pair of pants, as the word for pants rhymes with the word bitter. Getting a haircut is also taboo. The word for hair rhymes with the word for prosperity, so cutting ones hair is perceived as cutting away prosperity. Sweeping the floor is forbidden on the first day of the New Year, as it is symbolic of sweeping away good fortune and luck.

Conversely, certain activities are thought to bring good fortune. Eating candy for example ensures one of a “sweet” year.

On New Year’s Eve, it is common for Chinese to hold a reunion dinner with other members of the family both near and far. The reunion dinner is traditionally served at the home of the most senior member of the family. Red packets known as “Hong Bao” are distributed during the reunion dinner. These packets often contain money in certain denominations that reflect good luck. They are passed out from elderly or married people to unmarried adults and children. Fish is often prepared for this meal, but not eaten completely, the remainder being stored overnight. “May there be surpluses” sounds the same as “May there be fish”. In the north of China, Peking Ravioli are consumed during the celebrations. Many eastern Chinese eat “Nian Gao” a sticky rice cake, because its name is a homophone for “a more prosperous year”.

On the first day of the New Year it is customary to eat only vegetarian food, as it is considered bad luck to take the life of animals on this day. A traditional dish known as Lo Hon Jai consists of many ingredients, all thought to bring good fortune for the new year. Fa Cai for example, is a kind of seaweed whose Chinese name literally means “hair vegetable” but also rhymes with “get rich”. Fa Cai is always one of the ingredients in Lo Hon Jai. You may find this dish on restaurant menus listed as “Buddha’s Delight”.

Each new year is associated with one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. These include the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Rats are seen as leaders, pioneers and conquerors, and are associated with aggression, wealth, charm and order. They are believed to be hard-working and systematic. People born under this sign are seen to have great leadership skills, and a lot of charisma. They are able to find their way through obstacles and adapt to various circumstances. On the negative side, they can be very obstinate and controlling, insisting on having things their way, whatever the cost. On the whole however, the positive attributes of the rat outweigh the negative.

This season, the festivities in Chinatown conclude on Sunday, February 17th, from 10am to 6pm when there will be a parade and traditional Lion Dance on the plaza in front of the Chinatown gate. This event is open to the public.

Written by Jim Becker, Boston Chinatown Tour Guide

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