Friday, January 27, 2006

Chinese New Year


January 29th is the beginning of the Chinese New Year. The New Year always begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice and continues until the moon is full, about 15 days. This is the year 4704, the Year of the Dog.

Legend has it that thousands of years ago an evil monster ravaged a Chinese village on winter's eve. The following year the monster returned and again destroyed the village. The villagers realized that the destruction would continue unless they devised a plan to scare away the monster. They decided to hang red banners everywhere (red is the color used to protect against evil) and use firecrackers, drums and gongs to create loud noises to scare the evil beast. The plan worked and the villagers were victorious. Elated they celebrated for many days, visiting friends and neighbors, exchanging gifts, dancing and feasting.

This magical time of year is filled with ritual and tradition with a strong family focus. For many Chinese laborers this is the only time of year they will travel home to be with family. New Year’s Eve and Day are celebrated as a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving. Traditionally this celebration is highlighted by a religious ceremony honoring Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household and family ancestors. The unification of the living and the dead is the most vital ritual and ancestors are memorialized with respect and admiration with a dinner acknowledging their presences. The communal feast called "weilu" or “surrounding the stove” symbolizes family unity of past and present generations.

Chinese celebrations are both literal and symbolic. During these celebrations, individuals avoid harsh, rude behavior as this is believed to bring bad luck. Traditional red envelopes called "lai see" are handed out at the start of the New Year and represent good luck for the coming year. These envelopes contain a small token gift that is given in an even amount, 2 or 4 of something, as odd numbers are regarded as unlucky. While the contents are nice, the intention that comes with the gift is of far greater value. Lions are thought to be good omens. The traditional lion dance, performed with elaborate costumes, is believed to repel demons. Symbolically cleaning out the old and making way for the new, spring cleaning is started about one month prior and must be completed before the celebrations begin.

Foods also have a deeper meaning during the festive celebration. Fish is eaten ensuring long life and good fortune. Red dates bring the hope for prosperity, melon seeds for proliferation and lotus seeds for family prosperity. "Nain gao", the New Year cake is always served with a belief that the higher the cake rises the better the year ahead will be. Oranges and tangerines symbolize wealth and good fortune. Serving or eating food from a chipped or cracked plate is thought to bring about bad luck. Prosperity Trays, eight sided trays symbolizing prosperity, are filled with red dates, melon seeds, cookies and New Year cake.

Tea has a central role in Asian culture and this celebration is no exception. Tea brings about the element of contemplation and reflection, an opportunity to be inspired with all the possibilities in the year ahead.

"Gung Hey Fat Choy", Wishing You Prosperity and Wealth.