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CHINESE NEW YEAR
by Kathy Wolfe
February 5th marks the beginning of the observation of the Chinese New Year. This week, Tidbits celebrates the occasion with this collection of facts.
• The date of the Chinese New Year changes every year, because it follows the lunar calendar, based on the moon’s movements. It will always fall somewhere between January 21 and February 20, and will usually fall on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice.
• The Chinese New Year calendar follows a 12-year cycle, with each new year named after an animal. The Chinese animal zodiac in order is rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, with 2019 being a pig year. Besides the animal designation, each year also cycles through the five elements of nature – Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, and Metal. The Chinese believe that each animal sign has characteristics for those born under the sign, similar to the zodiac signs of Western astrology. However, the Chinese zodiac animals are not associated with constellations and are based on years, rather than months, and represent how others perceive a person or how that person presents himself or herself.
• Even though the celebration falls in the middle of Winter, it is traditionally known as “Spring Festival.” This is because it is the “Start of Spring,” marking the end of the coldest part of winter, when the Chinese begin to look forward to Spring.
• About one-quarter of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year, including 1.3 billion people in China, 90 million in Vietnam, and 50 million in South Korea. Most of the countries celebrating have a three-day public holiday, and Chinese schools are closed for a month.
• The festival itself lasts for 15 days, with the first day starting with the new moon, and ending on the full moon. New Year’s Eve is a celebration to honor family, ancestors, and heavenly and sacred deities with a reunion dinner, the most important dinner of the year, usually held at the home of the oldest member of the extended family. The menu is large and elaborate, and ritual sacrifices of food are offered to gods and ancestors. Many don’t eat meat at that feast, believing that abstaining on the first day will ensure a long and happy life, and purify and cleanse the body. This also reinforces the belief that nothing should be killed on the first day of the new year.
• Fireworks are lit at midnight, as the noise and lights are believed to ward off demons and evil spirits in the coming year. Since China produces 90% of the world’s fireworks, it’s no surprise that the New Year’s Eve fireworks displays are the largest in the world.
• At midnight on New Year’s Eve, every window and door in each home is opened to allow the old year to go out.
• The new year is symbolic of letting go of the past and welcoming new beginnings. It’s a tradition to thoroughly clean the home in preparation for the holiday, in order to rid it of any bad feelings that have accumulated there over the past year. The cleaning also satisfies the gods who traditionally come down from heaven for an inspection. Failure to clean can bring bad luck to the family. However, on New Year’s Day, no sweeping or dusting is allowed in a Chinese home due to the fear that good luck and fortune will be swept away. Traditionalists also do not wash their hair on that day, for fear that good luck will be washed away.
• The second day of the festival is set aside for kindness to the animal of the year. Since 2019 is the year of the pig, it’s an old Chinese belief Day Two of the new year is the birthday of all pigs, and people should be especially kinds to pigs on that day.
• On days three and four, sons-in-law pay respect to their wife’s parents. On the fifth day, brooms and dust pans can once again be brought out, but dirt can only be removed through the home’s back door. The day is spent at home, as it is considered bad luck to visit anyone on that day. On days six through ten, folks are free to call on their loved ones and to visit the temple to pray for good fortune.
• Day 7 honors the birthday of all humans, with a drink concocted from seven types of vegetables consumed to celebrate. The day’s menu is raw fish to promote success, and long uncut noodles that represent long life.
• The pomegranate is a traditional fruit during Chinese New Year, because its many seeds symbolize fertility. The orange is also treasured because it represents good luck.
• The color red is prominent throughout Chinese New Year celebrations. It’s the symbol of fire, which is believed to ward off evil spirits and prevent bad luck. Red also denotes happiness, wealth, and prosperity. People wear red clothing, homes and city streets are decorated with red lanterns and red paper cuttings, and children receive red envelopes full of money. The dollar amount of the gift cannot be divisible by 4 because in the Chinese culture, that number means death. Folks even paint their doors and window jams red to chase away bad luck.
• Chinese tradition dictates that whatever a person does on New Year’s Day will set the standard for the remainder of the year. A person borrowing money on New Year’s Day will be borrowing all year long. Likewise, a person who lends money will be lending all year long. Parents don’t spank their children, believing that a child who cries on New Year’s Day will cry all year.
• Traditional greetings throughout the festival include: “May you realize your ambitions,” “May a small investment bring ten-thousand-fold profits,” “May your wealth come to fill a hall,” and “May your happiness and longevity be complete.”
• The 15th and final day of the New Year celebration ushers in the Lantern Festival, which falls on the night of the first full moon of the Chinese New Year. People walk the streets carrying lanterns, lanterns are put up for decoration, let loose into the air, and floated in rivers. They are a symbol of lighting the way for the New Year.