Posted By | Posted On Jan 13, 2009

“Happy New Year Everyone!”

In Chinatown, preparations are being made for the most important holiday of the year. Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, or the Spring Festival, falls on a different date each year because it is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. This usually occurs sometime from mid-January to late February. This year, it falls on January 26th. This year will be the Year of the Ox. Each year is associated with one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac system. If you were born in 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, or 1997, then you were born in the year of the Ox. 2009 is actually year 4706 according to the Chinese system. Those born in the year of the Ox are born leaders, tend to be conservative, methodical, patient and dependable. On the other hand, they can also be self-centered and stubborn, and often lack a sense of humor. They get along well with astrological roosters, snakes and rats, but not so well with tigers, sheep or dogs.

The traditions surrounding Chinese New Year all have a single objective: to bring good fortune to the family in the year to come. A paper replica of the Kitchen God known as Zao Jun hangs in all traditional Chinese kitchens, and serves as a moral compass for the family. On the 23rd or 24th day of the twelfth lunar month, Zao Jun makes his annual report to the Jade Emperor, the supreme ruler of the heavens, as to whether the family’s behavior during the past year has been naughty or nice, to use a familiar phrase. In order to “sweeten” Zao Jun’s report, people will often smear the Kitchen God’s mouth with honey, before they light him on fire and send him to the Jade Emperor in a plume of smoke. A new paper Kitchen God takes his place for the coming year.

While we westerners make resolutions for the New Year, Chinese make wishes. If the wishes are not granted, it’s the gods who are at fault. If we fail to keep our resolutions however, we have only ourselves to blame.

The days leading up to the Spring Festival are used to get rid of any unpleasant baggage from the previous year. This is the time to mend relationships, resolve differences, and pay all debts. The entire house is cleaned from top to bottom. The home is decorated with symbols of good fortune, in red or gold. Oranges, tangerines with bright green leaves attached and persimmons are placed around the house, as these fruits represent long life, lasting relationships, and wealth. A circular tray, known as the “Tray of Togetherness” is filled with sweets such as candied winter melon and lotus root, the shape of the tray suggesting familial unity. The character “fu” meaning luck is hung to the side of the door outside the home. In Northern China, the character is hung upside down because in Mandarin, the words for “upside down” and “arrive” sound the same, so if you want luck to arrive, you hang it upside down. This is not the case for speakers of Cantonese.

The “Reunion Dinner” takes place on New Year’s Eve, and it is a time when relatives from far and wide gather for a feast, usually held at the home of the oldest member of the family. Fish is always a part of this meal, as the word for “fish” sounds like the word for “abundance”. The fish is always presented whole, with the head and tail intact, signifying that this abundance will remain “unbroken”. Some of the fish is saved after the meal to be eaten in the days to come, the idea being that there will be abundant surpluses for the family. Noodles are also eaten, as they are a symbol of longevity, and the longer the noodles, the better. A special New Year’s Cake called “Nian Gao”and made of rice rounds out the meal.

Children are given red envelopes known as “Hong Bao” in Mandarin or “Lai See” in Cantonese. These envelopes contain money. Two envelopes are given to each child, as happiness comes in two’s. Business owners also give these to employees. The money slipped into these envelopes should be brand – new bills.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, all doors and windows are opened to let go of the old year.

On New Year’s Day, all brooms and brushes are put away. It is bad luck to sweep the floor, because you would be sweeping away good fortune. It is customary to don brand new clothes, preferably red, and new shoes as well. It is bad luck to wash your hair on this day, as again, you would be washing away good fortune.

It is also inauspicious to greet people who are in mourning on New Year’s Day. Everyone else should be greeted with the phrase “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (Mandarin), or “Gung Hay Faat Choy” (Cantonese), which means “congratulations, may you become wealthy”.

On New Year’s Day, a vegetarian meal is traditional, and the most popular dish is known as Lo Han Jai, or “Buddha’s Delight”. Buddhists believe that vegetarian food should be eaten during the first five days of the New Year as a form of purification. Lo Han Jai may contain many ingredients, but usually includes, wheat gluten, cellophane noodles, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, daylily buds, gingko nuts and Faat Choy, a type of moss whose name sounds like the “become wealthy” part of the traditional New Year’s greeting.

This year, Boston’s Chinese New Year celebration will take place at the Chinatown Gate on Sunday February 1st. The event is open to the public. The festivities begin at 10am, and will include a dragon dance, a lion dance, and as always bright red ear-splitting firecrackers.

Written by Jim Becker, Chinatown Guide

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