January 23, 2012 marked the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Dragon. People throughout China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and diasporic communities worldwide will celebrate the Lunar New Year during the first fifteen days. The Lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, which is different than the western Gregorian calendar based on the cycle of the sun. Lunar New Year always corresponds to the last two weeks of January or the first two weeks of February.
The dragon is the fifth sign of the Chinese zodiac. It is considered to be the most auspicious sign, thus in the year of the dragon, people born under this sign will benefit greatly from the forces of the dragon. Since the year of the dragon is an auspicious year, many will want to get married during this year. Family will want a baby born in the year of the dragon because dragons are a lucky sign; dragon people tend to be successful in life, and may potentially bring prosperity to the family. As such, women in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Chinese diasporic communities worldwide will visit fertility clinics and doctors in order to ensure the birth of a dragon baby. Towards the end of the dragon year, pregnant women may also ask their doctors to induce birth if it is safe. These activities speak to the value and importance Chinese people put into the year of the dragon.
In Asia, young people who have moved away from their parental homes and villages pack buses, trains, and planes to go back to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their families. Businesses, such as restaurants and shops, shut down. For a brief moment, big cities such as Beijing, China, or Taipei, Taiwan become quiet.
Planning for the celebration starts well before New Year's Day. Families are busy cleaning their homes, decorating it with freshly cut flowers, such as narcissus, water lilies, peonies, and azaleas, representing beauty and new growth for the new year; fruits, especially oranges and tangerines, are displayed and given as gifts to visitors and friends as they symbolize wealth and money. During the New Year season, red is the preferred color for dress as it symbolizes health and life, as blood runs through a living healthy body. Other bright colors are worn to keep the mode festive and jovial. A home that has a blooming plant on New Year's day is believed to prosper during the year. The color white is avoided as it represents death, as a dead body turns “white” when blood no longer runs through the body.
On New Year's Day, it is taboo to sweep the house as it would be sweeping away one's prosperity for the coming year. One cannot use a knife or scissors either, as it would be akin to cutting away one's prosperity in the New Year. The number four is avoided because in all dialects of Chinese, the sound for the number “four” sounds like the word for “death.” Similarly, death and dying are taboo subjects and should be avoided. Because the New Year's sets the tone for developments during the entire year, parents will not spank their children for being mischievous. Instead, they are tolerated with smiles and a positive attitude.
Traditionally, Lunar New Year in China and in Chinese communities worldwide is celebrated for fifteen days. However, due to common constraints on time and resources the fifteen day celebration may be shorten, or all activities for all fifteen days may not be observed.
On day 1, rituals are performed and offerings are made to the gods of heaven and earth.
On day 2, extended family members come together to make offerings and perform rituals for the ancestors. This includes cooking their favorite dishes while they are alive and sharing in the memories of their life. All dinners will serve a whole fish, a homonym for “abundance”; a whole chicken to represent wholeness and completeness; seaweed, a homonym for “wealth”; and lotus seeds, which symbolize fertility and a male child. Families with dogs treat their pets with extra special attention as it is considered the birthday of the dog.
On day 3 and 4, children will offer tea and well wishes to their parents, which includes in-laws. Parents will then give their children red envelopes, known as “hong bao” in Mandarin Chinese or “lai see” in Cantonese, which will contain some money.
On day 5, everyone stays in their own home to welcome the visit from the God of Wealth. It is taboo to go out on this day.
From day 6-12, people will visit families, extended families and good friends. At each visit, visitors present their host with oranges, tangerines, and flowers, and more red envelopes are given to children of the house. During this period, day 9 is reserved for rituals and offerings to the Jade Emperor, the highest ranking deity in the Chinese celestial pantheon.
On day 13, people will eat a simple dinner of rice porridge and mustard greens. On day 14, people will prepare for the celebration of the Lantern Festival by making lanterns. On day 15, people celebrate the Lantern Festival at night, writing wishes on their lanterns, lighting them up, and seeing them slowly rise to heaven. The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
While this celebration is important to people in Asia, it is also very important to Asian Americans. Cities throughout North America with large Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communities hold public celebrations and parades in honor of Lunar New Year. The annual San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is the largest celebration of its kind outside of Asia. Many Asian Americans close their shops or take a day off work to observe Lunar New Year.
JONATHAN H. X. LEE, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies who specializes in Southeast Asian and Sino-Southeast Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Among his many publications, he is the coeditor of the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife with Kathleen Nadeau (ABC-CLIO, 2010).