Every year Frances gives a presentation to her daughters’ school class — so she’s getting pretty good at it
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor
Lunar New Year is one of the most important festivals for Asian people in many countries all over the world. It is the beginning of the new year according to the lunar calendar. Often referred to as Chinese New Year, it is also called Tet by the Vietnamese, Sol by the Koreans, and Losar by the Tibetans. And it is not only celebrated in Asian countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia; but also in America, England, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, etc. In fact, if we lived in San Francisco, California, today would be a school holiday!
Lunar New Year is a time for people to get together with family and friends, congratulate each other on making it through another year, and to welcome in the new year. A common greeting is “Gong hsi fa tsai” (or “Gung Hai Fat Choi” in Cantonese) which means “Congratulations on surviving the old year (and the monster Nian) and hope you get rich in the new year!” There are many customs and traditions and stories surrounding this holiday—Tet, Sol, and Losar have some similarities—but I’ll focus mainly on Chinese New Year.
This year, February 1 will be the first day of the new year, and this year will be 4701 on the Chinese calendar. The year is much bigger than 2003 simply because the Chinese started counting earlier. The exact date of New Year’s changes every year because the Chinese use a lunar calendar which is based on the cycles of the moon, rather than the sun. (According to the lunar calendar, it is always the same date, the first day of the first month, it is just different relative to the solar calendar.)
This will also be the year of the sheep. The twelve animal signs are a 12-year cycle used for dating the years. Every year is assigned an animal name or “sign” according to a repeating cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. A long time ago, when not everyone went to school, the animal signs helped them keep track of how old they were, and helped them figure out who is older or younger. So instead of asking someone how old she is, you could ask her what her animal sign is, then with a little bit of math and common sense, you can figure out how old she is. For example, this next year is the year of the sheep. If you know someone’s sign is the sheep, then you know that she is turning 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, or 72 years old this year.
Before New Year’s Day arrives, families make sure to clean the house—just like spring cleaning. Then they decorate the house with special words written on red paper, either Spring or Good Luck, and they are usually hung upside-down to show that “Spring” or “Good luck has arrived” because the word upside-down sounds like the word for “has arrived.” People hang red spring couplets or poems on their doors to protect their homes from evil spirits and the monster Nian. People also decorate their homes with flowers, especially plum blossoms and water narcissus. If the water narcissus blooms exactly on New Year’s day, that is a sign of good fortune for the year to come. People also pay off all their debts and resolve any fights or disagreements they have had with friends so they can start the new year fresh.
On New Year’s Eve, the whole extended family gets together for a big feast. Just like at Thanksgiving, when you have to have certain special foods like turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows, the Chinese New Year feast also has special food. A whole fish is served because the word for fish, yu, sounds like the Chinese word for “more than enough.” A whole chicken is served because the word for chicken sounds like “family,” and a whole chicken represents family unity and togetherness. Noodles are served because they represent long life. Dumplings and pot stickers are served because they look like ancient Chinese money. Chinese broccoli sounds like “long years vegetable,” and ensures long life. Soy bean sprouts sound like “all that you wish for.” Chinese New Year’s Cake or Nian Gao sounds like both “new year” and “sticky” and represents a wish that the family will stick together in the new year. And when you make the cake, the higher the cake rises, the higher the family’s fortunes will rise in the new year. Tangerines symbolize good luck, and oranges symbolize wealth.
After dinner, children pay respects to their elders, and parents and grandparents give children red envelopes with lucky money inside. (Some naughty children change the traditional new year’s greeting to Gong hsi fa tsai, hong bao na lai—or “Happy New Year, now give me my red envelope”—very rude and naughty). Some families put the red envelopes under their children’s pillows to keep them safe through the night (in case the Nian monster comes). Some families set off firecrackers and hire lion dancers to dance in front of their homes or businesses to scare away evil sprits and the old year. The noise of the firecrackers is also supposed to wake up the dragon that brings the spring rains so that the rice planting season can begin. Our family makes a lot of clanging and banging noises to scare off the old year and the Nian monster—and we make sure that the door is open so they can run far away from our house!
On New Year’s Day, everyone wears new clothes to show that they are making a new start. This also confuses evil spirits that may be lurking because they won’t recognize the children in their new clothes. People say that whatever happens on the first day of the first year will foretell what the new year will be like, so parents don’t let their kids cry or fight or say bad things on new year’s day—for fear they will cry or fight or say bad things all year long. Parents also cannot scold or yell at their children. People don’t sweep or throw out trash for fear they might accidentally throw out good fortune. People also do not use knives or scissors for fear they might cut their good luck short.
Traditionally, Chinese New Year lasts two weeks. People go visit friends and family. Stores and schools are closed. Lion dances, acrobats, theatrical shows, and other festivities take place in the streets. People set off firecrackers. The seventh day of the new year was called “everyone’s birthday” and everyone becomes one year older. That way you don’t have to bother remembering people’s birthdays and parents don’t have to have separate birthday parties for each of their children. The fifteenth day is the Lantern Festival and people carried colorful lanterns shaped like different animals or with poems written on them into the streets. People also eat a special sweet soup called yuan hsiao to represent a wish for a round and complete family with plenty of sweetness. In America, the Lantern Festival has turned into the Chinese New Year’s Parade with dragon dances, lion dances, beauty queens, floats, and marching bands.
If you see a lion dance or a dragon dance, here’s the trick to telling the difference between a lion and a dragon. A lion has two people in it—a head and a tail—and they do lots of jumping around and martial arts tricks. Dragons are long and can have 30-100 people running inside. They have a long nose and often chase a giant pearl. Both are mythical creatures in China, that’s why a lot of people get them confused. Both are good—lions scare away evil spirits, and dragons bring the rains and control the rivers and oceans.
There are many lunar new year’s celebrations in communities across America, including lion dances, parades, pageants, festivals, banquets, and performances. Check your local paper for activities near you!