My Salute To The Chinese Year Of The Horse


Happy Chinese New Year! (Or, more correctly, “Gong hey fat choy!”)

Yes, just when you thought every single seasonal celebration had ended, your Chinese friends and neighbors start hanging red lanterns and setting off fireworks. What is this madness?
I’ll tell you what. Centuries ago, a rumor started that the beast Nian spent the first day of the new year eating crops, livestock and, unfortunately, children. So villagers put food out in the hopes that the mythical creature would eat that instead.

They also decided that Nian was afraid of fire (understandable) and of the color red (less understandable, but worth a try when the survival of one’s children is at stake). So fireworks are gathered, red lanterns are hung and tots are dressed in red. (British soldiers, who dressed in red with a big red X across their chests, would caution against this, but that’s their business.)

Once everything is safely decorated in red, the Chinese New Year can continue. As with most celebrations, food plays a huge part. The New Year’s Eve dinner kicks off a 15-day party that is considered a family reunion of sorts. Those who no longer live at home are expected to return, and places are set for deceased ancestors as well. Fish and dumplings are two of the highlights, as they mean prosperity (ask any Chinese restaurant owner).

Many Chinese stay up that night, both to fend off Nian and to see who is getting good luck (all you have to do is be the first person to set off fireworks at midnight). Temporary New Year’s markets are set up to attract those short on bottle rockets, lanterns, red clothing, food, candy or red envelopes.
Red envelopes?

For the unmarried, the Chinese New Year brings both good luck and prosperity, as tradition requires their elders to give them red packets (lai see — not to be confused with “lazy”) filled with money — anything from one to several thousand Yuan. One Yuan currently equals 19 cents, so you can see where this money not only keeps the young healthy and suppresses evil, but probably acts as a powerful deterrent for those considering marriage.

Prior to the festival, everyone and everything is thoroughly cleaned, but all cleaning supplies and brooms are hidden away before the party starts lest good fortune is swept away. Guests bring trays of oranges and tangerines, dried fruit, flowers, plants and wishes for the new year written on red paper. Tofu is strictly avoided, as the color white represents misfortune, death and a rather bland favor (just kidding about that last one — tofu is the chameleon of foods).

The second day of the celebration signifies the universal birthday of all dogs and, right behind the honoring of the dogs, comes the honoring of the parents-in-law on days three and four. (The universal birthday of human beings doesn’t show up until day seven.)

On day five, everyone stays home awaiting the god of wealth and, perhaps to help cope with disappointment, the following five days are set aside for temple visits in which people pray for wealth and health.

The whole celebration began with the new moon and it ends with the full moon. A lantern festival nighttime parade is held to wrap things up and, this year, to usher in the Year of the Horse.

Those crazy Chinese — dressing in red, giving presents of money, hosting parades and dinners. What do they think this is… Christmas?