Monday, January 26, 2009 is the second new moon after the winter solstice, and for many Asian cultures, the beginning of the lunar New Year.
We took a trip down to Chinatown to see how people are preparing for the holiday.
The lunar New Year is celebrated by Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tibetan and Mongolian people. The holiday is called Chinese New Year, but also sometimes called the Spring Holiday, or, in Vietnam, Tet. In the Los Angeles area, big celebrations take place in downtown Chinatown and in Monterey Park. In Garden Grove, down in Orange County, the Vietnamese community holds a huge holiday celebration.
2009 is the Year of Ji Chou, or the Ox. We saw lots of pictures of ox, here Disney-fied with big soft eyes like Bambi. There were also golden figurines of oxen, reclining and surrounded by gold ingots.
The New Year has been celebrated at the beginning of the lunar calendar since the Han Dynasty, over a hundred years before Christ. The legend surrounding the celebration tells of a village that had been terrorized by a mysterious beast, called the Nian, or Year, that came to steal villagers' winter stores of food, livestock, and even their children. To placate the beast, people would pile gifts of food outside their doors, as bribes. The legend goes that once, the beast saw a small child dressed in red clothing, and was filled with fear at the sight. Villagers started hanging red lanterns at their doors, and red scrolls, to scare away the beast. They also began lighting firecrackers, so the noise and smoke would scare the Nian.
There were lots of embroidered clothes on display, red cheongsam dresses and little children's tunics. I found a pretty red sweater embroidered with flowers, for only ten dollars.
Now, New Year celebrations always include firecrackers, red lanterns, red decorations and parades with lion dances and dragon dances.
In the days coming up to the New Year, Chinese families thoroughly clean their homes. Cleaning before the New Year sweeps all the past year's bad luck out of the house. People are very careful to put away the brooms and dustpans before the New Year starts, though. If you sweep up after the New Year starts, you risk sweeping good luck away. And all washing and cleaning must be finished before New Years - or you risk washing good luck down the drain. People start the New Year with a fresh haircut, a fresh coat of paint on their homes or doors. New clothing is worn, usually in the color red, which symbolizes the holiday.
Chinese households keep an image of Zao Jun, the Kitchen God, displayed in their kitchens, often by the stove. Zao Jun watches over the household - not just to protect, but also to keep an eye out that the family is behaving properly. As an example of theocratic bureaucracy, just before New Years the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor about how the family's conduct over the past year. Family members often smear the god's mouth with honey to sweeten his words - that or stick his lips firmly shut. Zao Jun's journey is aided by burning his picture - his smoke rises to the heavens. A new image of the Kitchen God is hung for the following year.
The celebration lasts for fifteen days, and each day has its own special activity. It begins with a big reunion dinner for families on New Years Eve. The dinner includes traditional foods such as whole fish or chicken, representing surplus and abundance. Uncut noodles represent longevity. People exchange gifts of money in red envelopes. It's important to avoid multiples of the number four, because in Chinese the word for four sounds like the word for "death".
New Years Day is for honoring the gods and visiting the oldest members of the family. It's also marked by some by abstaining from eating meat, so traditional vegetarian dishes are popular.
The second day is for honoring the ancestors. It's also considered the birthday of all dogs, and a day to honor dogs.
On the third and fourth day, it is considered unlucky to visit relatives - perhaps to avoid getting into arguments, or perhaps because it is more appropriate to visit gravesides and remember those who've passed away.
On the fifth day, many businesses reopen, because the fifth day is the birthday of the god of wealth.
The sixth day through the tenth day people go to the temple and pray.
The seventh day is considered "everybody's birthday." On this day, farmers display their produce, people light firecrackers, and there are lion dances in the street.
The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor.
The tenth and twelfth days bring more family visiting and celebration.
The thirteenth day is for taking a rest and eating simply - wouldn't it be great if all holidays had a special day for chilling out?
The fourteenth day is used to prepare for the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the fifteenth day.
The Lantern Festival is the culmination of the New Years holiday. People hang red lanterns at their doors and along the streets. There are parades and dragon dances in the streets.
Throughout the New Year, people decorate their houses and offer treats to eat that are as symbolic of the holiday as our Christmas trees and candy canes symbolize Christmas.
Plants and florals include blossoming plum branches, orchids, chrysanthemums and water narcissus. People gift one another with kumquats and tangerines. Painted decor include pictures of koi fish, or sometimes food is shaped or decorated to look like koi. Coconut candies, lychees and gingko nuts, and peanuts are offered as treats.
In Los Angeles's Chinatown, the holiday is celebrated with a parade and dragon dance on Saturday, January 31st. Other Southern California community celebrations include the city of Monterey Park and Westminster (Little Saigon), both of which take place the weekend of January 30 - February 1. The San Gabriel Valley's parade and street festival take place on February 7th - rounding out the New Year.
The traditional New Years greeting is "Kung hee fat choi!" which means "congratulations and prosperity!"
If you want to learn more about customs for Chinese New Year, go to This Link.