hinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar. According to the lunar calendar, this year is 4713 — the Year of the Monkey. Each year in the 12-year cycle is assigned a different animal. If you’re wondering why certain animals are used, one legend has it that Buddha called to all the animals of the world promising to name a year after each animal that came to him. Of all the animals, only 12 came. Each received a year in the order it arrived. Buddha gave some of its characteristics to that particular year.
Another legend says that once upon a time, the Emperor of the gods came up with the idea of the Chinese Zodiac to represent the 12 most powerful and wisest animals in the world. Twelve animals quarreled as to who would head the Chinese Zodiac. It was very difficult for the Emperor to choose who would get to lead because all the animals were special in their own way. Therefore the Emperor held a race or contest to decide who would get to be in the Chinese Zodiac Calendar. Whoever reached the opposite bank of the river first would be head of the first cycle, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish.
All the animals gathered at the riverbank and jumped in. The tiny little rat, afraid of getting squashed by the other huge animals, jumped up on the ox’s back. The huge, strong ox raced across the river and was about to jump ashore; the very wise rat jumped off the ox’s back and won the race. The pig, who was very lazy, ended up last. That is one of the reasons why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, then the ox, then tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and last, but not least, the pig.
During the frenetic Year of the Monkey, anything goes and even the craziest of plans can succeed. Real estate, politics and business ventures are highlighted. New projects get the green light under the Monkey’s influence. The quick-witted will be in their element, snatching favorable circumstances to advance their plans from the events around them, and the dullards will be left in the dust.
Families work hard to clean the house thoroughly, careful to sweep out the evil spirits of the past year, but also sweeping inward to make sure not to sweep away the family’s wealth.
All debts are paid to save face for the borrower and bring good fortune to all. Cutting of food and hair must be done before midnight on New Year’s Eve since cutting anything on New Year’s Day will cut off good luck.
One can’t say any foul language or negative words. For good fortune in the Lunar New Year, one must always say positive, good luck words.
A picture of the kitchen god hangs in the kitchen year-round in the belief that he goes to heaven at the end of the year to tell the almighty jade god all the good and bad things about the family. On the 24th day of the 12th month, the family performs a ceremony in which honey is smeared on the kitchen god’s mouth to ensure he will say “sweet” things and wine is poured on his mouth to intoxicate him so that he will forget the bad things. Then the Kitchen God is dispatched to deliver a message to the Sky God. The picture is taken down, placed on a paper horse and brought into the backyard with much ceremony, then burned to send the kitchen god on his way to heaven. A new kitchen god is hung for the subsequent year to look over the family. Joss paper marked with wishes for good health, longevity and prosperity is burned, the smoke carrying the messages to heaven.
Signs of the New Year are everywhere. In produce sections of grocery stores, tangerines and oranges are displayed with leaves attached. The pomelos, full and round as suns, practically give off their own light. Sometimes known as the Chinese grapefruit, the pomelo, topped with a tangerine or orange will soon appear at household thresholds as offerings to the door god.
Shelves are packed to the edges with joss money, clothing and poems, banners with wishes for prosperity, health and more prosperity hangs low from the ceiling, and on the counters, so you don’t forget, red envelopes to hold money — Li See — for new year’s gifts. The almanac for the Year of the Sheep, listing auspicious days, less-auspicious days and not-so-auspicious days, is there for the asking. In it there’s some fortune telling, three or four types of dream interpretations and some papers that can be burned to get rid of evil spirits. It doesn’t help to get the almanac later rather than sooner; you need to know which direction to walk when/if you leave your house on New Year’s day to bring prosperity.
To avoid washing and cutting on New Year’s Day, people get haircuts earlier. On New Year’s Eve, they bathe in water boiled with the pomelo leaves. Considered a purifier, the leaves are also used in shadowed areas of the house or where someone lay sick in bed.
Families hang scrolls in doorways for good luck, health and prosperity. A family reunion meal takes place, and food offerings are made to gods and ancestors. In the past, families stayed up all night in the belief that the longer one stays up, the longer one’s parents will live. At midnight, firecrackers are exploded to scare away lazy or evil spirits.
As part of the annual tradition, every door and window is supposed to be wide open on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. That lets out the spirits of the old year and lets in the new ones.
No cleaning, especially sweeping, will be done on New Year’s Day when the Kitchen God takes his place by the stove again. No washing, for fear of washing luck away. Cooking for the New Year’s feast is completed the day before and knives put away so luck won’t be cut but instead will flow.
It is believed that what you do on New Year’s is what comes for the rest of the year. People try to take off from work, so the year won’t bring constant toil; yelling, cursing, chastising children, unkind words and gossip are avoided, so the year won’t bring disharmony and tears.
Red and pink flowers and blossoms are displayed, signifying a fresh and invigorating hope for the new year. Other plants and their symbolic meaning include: narcissus, good fortune and prosperity; camellia, springtime; evergreens, everlasting life; peach blossoms, longevity; and Buddha hand citron, happiness.
Friends and family visit one another. Married callers bring red Li See envelopes with money inside to give to the children. Visitors also bring bags of oranges and tangerines with their gold color signifying “golden prosperity.” The visits reconfirm family ties and by extension community ties, but the new year begins with a reverence for the ancestors.
The ancestors have their own table with plates, bowls and chopsticks by the altar. Incense is lit and paper money is burned for them to spend in the afterlife. But what’s most important is the example the ritual sets. The elders set up the altar to show their respect for the people who went before them, and they thank their elders for their blessing. Then when the parents get older, the kids understand that they give money to their parents. And just as new clothes in joss paper are burned as offerings to the ancestors so they will be well turned out in the afterlife, new clothes, from the skin out if possible, are proper wear on New Year’s Day.
Red is the preferable color for clothing as it is an auspicious color during the New Year, meant to convey good cheer and frighten away the demons. According to legend, the horrible beast called nian (the same word for “year”) only had three weaknesses: it was frightened by noise, sunshine, and the color red. So villagers built fires, set off firecrackers, and painted the doors to their houses red.
The hostess brings out her tray of eight immortals, which consists of eight different sweet foods, each symbolizing a particular good fortune for the person who eats it. Watermelon seeds signify wealth, coconut candy represents closeness to family; candied melon means good health and physical strength; ginger represents sharp mind and intelligence; cookies mean sweetness of nature and good disposition; oranges signify gold and wealth; and red candies mean good luck.
Lion dancers, led by a drummer, come to homes and businesses that put out heads of lettuce hanging from a long rope to entice the lion to their houses. Once there, he cavorts around the yard, eats the lettuce, spits it out, and “eats” a red envelope given by the household to signify that he has scared away evil spirits and brought good luck to their home. Firecrackers noisily end the fête.
A dark brown sweet, New Year’s cake called Go, which means “high” in Cantonese, is served as well as a vegetarian dish called Jai or Monk’s Stew, prepared in the belief that a new year should be started with a pure dish made entirely of vegetables. Incense and candles are lit to pay homage to ancestors. Sprays of an evergreen plant are displayed, signifying long life, and golden oranges are stacked on plates in a pyramid to ask for prosperity for the coming year.
On the 15th day of the New Year, the celebration ends with a lantern and dragon parade. Lanterns help people find the heavenly spirits who are believed to be flying around the full moon. The Lantern Festival also was said to usher in light and warmth after the cold winter and was a prayer for plentiful spring rains for the farmers. Some households lit as many lanterns as family members, and if they wanted more children, they displayed many more lanterns.
A block-long dragon, a mythical creature symbolic of vigor and fertility, is manned by as many as 200 men who swirl in its body around to scare any remaining evil spirits. The Chinese New Year celebration ends after about three weeks of festivities, food and family togetherness.