Each year, most Americans celebrate the New Year on the first day of January in the Gregorian Calendar. Many Americans host or go to parties on December 31st to herald in the New Year. The day is an official national holiday and individuals and families stay at home, enjoying a quiet day (and perhaps a day of recovery from the previous night!). However, in many Asian cultures, the New Year is celebrated on an entirely different date and manner and the welcoming of Lunar New Year is one of, if not the, biggest celebration in many (but not all) Asian cultures. On this day Chinese celebrate to pay respect to ancestors, spend time with families, pray for good fortune, anticipate the upcoming spring and honor various gods.
By Julie Park
Widely known as Chinese New Year or Chinese Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, which is based on the movement and position of both the sun and the moon. Many cultures have traditional calendars based on similar astronomical reckonings. The actual calculation as to when is the first day of the Chinese year is somewhat complicated but it usually falls on the day of the new moon prior to the vernal equinox, the first day of Spring. New Year celebrations last 15 days when the moon becomes full. This year starts on February 10th and is year 4711 on the Chinese Calendar.
In preparation for the Chinese New Year, Chinese families clean their homes. The cleaning is done to welcome the year with a clean mind and spirit. However, cleaning the home on the actual first day of the New Year day is considered bad luck. It's common to open doors and windows at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. This lets the old year out and welcomes in the New Year.
During this happy celebration, many positive wishes are exchanged, including "Gung Hay Fat Choy," which means "congratulations on prosperity and wealth." The colorful and exuberant Chinese Dragon Dance is essential to Chinese New Year celebrations. A group of highly skilled dancers don a dragon costume and perform the Dragon Dance along loud percussive music. Dragons represent prowess, nobility and fortune. In the household, the families would decorate their home with flowers which are said to bring good luck if they bloom during the New Year celebration. Families also decorate their house with red and gold colored items. Gold favors wealth and prosperity, whereas the color red is believed to repel any misfortune and bring happiness. Red also has an important role in a Chinese folktale related to the New Year. Nian (whose name means "year") was a flesh eating monster (utterly the opposite of the benevolent dragon) that would descend from the mountains at the end of each year to hunt and devour people. As the story goes, one wise village decided that it was people's fear and panic that brought forth the monster and so villagers drove away Nian with loud drumming, fireworks and displays of red paper. To this day, the Chinese New Year is also called "Nian."
While there is some regional variation, the 15 day Chinese New Year is celebrated according to the following sequence of events:
- Day 1 is celebrated to welcome the gods of the heavens and earth. Many people do not eat meat on the first day as they believe forgoing meat on this day will secure a long and happy life.
- Day 2 is spent by praying to their ancestors and various gods. In contemporary Hong Kong, fireworks accompanied by synchronized music illuminate the night sky.
- On Days 3 and 4, sons-in-law pay respect to their in-laws. In the older days, married women could travel back to their home to visit the family they grew up with. However, in Hong Kong, it's considered bad luck to visit extended families and friends during these days.
- Day 5 is called a Po Woo day. This is the day to welcome the God of Wealth. On this day people refrain from visiting their families and friends as they believe wealth will not come to a vacant home.
- From Day 6 to Day 12, Chinese visit their families and friends. On these days people also visit temples to pray for good fortune and wealth.
- On Day 13, the Chinese eat simple food such as congee (rice porridge) in order to clean their system from all the delicious but rich foods they consumed in prior days.
- Day 14 is spent in preparation of the Lantern Festival, which is held on the 15th day of the New Year and marks the end of festivities.
Special Chinese New Year's Foods
Eating special foods plays a role that is significant and filled with meaning in the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Here are some of the foods consumed and their cultural significance:
- Abalone: good fortune
- Chicken and fish (whole): represents togetherness and abundance
- Duck and egg: fertility
- Mandarin and orange: gold and wealth
- Mixed vegetables: family harmony
- Noodles: long and healthy life
- Water chestnuts: unity
Red Envelopes and Golden Fruit
Upon visiting families and friends, the most common gifts are red paper envelopes known as laisee as well as tangerines and oranges with leaves still attached. Laisee is a money envelope which is given to complement the "Gung Hay Fat Choy" wish. People insert various amounts of money in the envelopes, but even number amounts are seen as more propitious than odd numbers (which are favored at funerals). Usually laisee is given by married people to children or young unmarried adults. Tangerines and Oranges are also popular gifts as these fruits symbolize abundant happiness and wealth. These golden fruits are given with their leaves still attached because they symbolize the strong connection between the giver and the receiver.
The Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations. People gather on the night of the final day of the New Year celebration to light all the lanterns that they bought or made the previous day. The origins of the Lantern Festival are somewhat obscure and its significance has changed throughout Chinese history. The festival has been associated with Taiyi, the ancient God of Heaven, and with Taoism, as a rite to deceive an angry Jade Emperor. Lanterns are usually decorated with historical or legend and folklore-related artwork or one or more of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. In the past the Lantern Festival was a favored time for matrimonial matchmaking and courtship.
2013 Lunar New Year Events in San Diego:
Kearny Mesa Lunar New Year Festival
Cooking class: Chinese New Year Celebration
Chinese New Year Red Ball
Chinese New Year Celebration - Year of the Snake
San Diego Chinese New Year Food and Cultural Fair 2013
8th Annual Vietnamese Tet Festival
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