Jottings: Gong Hei Fat Choy - Happy (Lunar) New Year!
Feb. 1 marked the start of the Lunar New Year — the Year of the Tiger — celebrated by many Asian countries and by people from and associated with those countries around the world.
I recall the celebrations as a kid, and I thought I'd share some insights. First off — gong hei fat choy — Happy New Year in Cantonese, the Chinese language I was familiar with growing up.
Traditionally, festivities span 15 days, although today they run shorter with the number of official days off varying by country. The start of the year is tied to the lunar calendar, which follows a 12-year cycle. Each year represents one of 12 animals — Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. According to an ancient story, a race was organized by the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods in ancient times, who invited all the animals in the world to participate. Twelve animals attended and the order of animals in the zodiac calendar is based on the race rankings, with the pig finishing last.
Those born in the Year of the Tiger are associated with courage, leadership and confidence. They are said to be charming and well liked, but can be impetuous, irritable, and overindulgent.
Legend has it that Nian, a fierce and hideous beast, was believed to feast on human flesh on New Year's Day. Because Nian feared the color red, loud noises and fire, red paper decorations were pasted to doors, lanterns were burned all night and firecrackers were lit to frighten the beast away.
Traditions and customs vary based on countries, regions and families. However, similarities include returning home for the festivities, cleaning the house thoroughly before the new year, preparing special foods, decorating the front door with spring couplets or with a Chinese character that signifies good fortune, visiting family and friends and paying respects to ancestors.
Celebrations usually kick off with a family dinner on New Year's Eve. Dishes include noodles for longevity, whole steamed fish for abundance, sweet glutinous rice cakes for togetherness and success, and much more. Red packets with money are given by parents and elders to young kids and unmarried young adults. New Year's Day includes visits to relatives and friends, gift and red-packet giving, and stops at ancestors' graves. Oranges and tangerines symbolize good fortune and wealth and are frequently exchanged. Cherry blossoms and orchids symbolize longevity, spring and rebirth so you'll see these plants prominently displayed and given as gifts.
Remember Nian, the legendary evil monster who shows up every new year? Well, we have a worthy hero in the dragon — a symbol of power, wisdom, and wealth. To scare away evil spirits and bad luck, the appearance of the dragon is a must during the Lunar New Year.
I recall several dragon teams visiting my neighborhood when I was growing up.
Teams of teen and adult males would practice for weeks ahead of the new year. Dragon dancing takes practice, with different positions along the dragon body — head, body, and tail — requiring the coordination of all team members. No less important is the band — requiring a team to carry the heavy drums, and the drummers and gong and cymbal players working together to produce the distinctive beats that are synonymous with the dragon dance.
On New Year's Day, dragon costumes would be donned — one per team — and accompanied by the band, the groups would go from home to home. Dragons were offered lettuce (the word "lettuce" in Chinese sounds like "creating wealth") with red packets filled with money. The dragons danced vigorously, yet gracefully, to the beat of the music, and firecrackers would be set off. This would culminate with the dragons snatching the red packets in their mouths, the bands transitioning to a quieter cadence and the dragons bowing in thanks to the owners of the homes. And then off they would go to the next home …
I was partial to the Cantonese dragon dance beat — faster and livelier — than that of the Hakka dragon dance beat. I feel the same way today (no offense to my Hakka friends!) as I hear the beat in my head this new year. Gong hei fat choy — best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year!
Lilisa Hall is a member of the Jottings Group at The Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.
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