Thursday, February 7, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Rat

Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday celebrated among Chinese people. It is often referred to as the spring festival because it signals the beginning of spring.

It is a time when families and friends get together to say goodby to the old and welcome the new. It originally lasted for about 4 weeks, but now only lasts for 3-5 days.

The exact origin of this holiday is too old to be traced, but many explanations still exist. One idea is that the holiday originated when a beast named Nian (which means year in Chinese) came out the night before the new year and started to prey on the people in the villages. Of course, the people were very frightened by this monster and so a brave old man went up to the beast and said to him that instead of eating the people of the villages, he should eat the other beasts that frightened these people. Nian followed the old man's request and all of the beasts were chased into the forest. The old man rode away on Nian's back, and as it turns out, the man was an immortal god. The people of the village were very grateful to the old man for giving them a peaceful life. Before the old man left for good, he told the people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at the beginning of each new year because the color red scared the beast. They also set off firecrackers to scare away the horrible beast. This is only one idea about how Chinese New Year began, there are many other ideas about how this celebration began. Most people just celebrate the holiday without really knowing why.

Another interesting thing about Chinese New Year is that very few people know when this holiday is celebrated without looking at a traditional Chinese calendar because it never falls on the same day. Chinese years are grouped in sets of 12 with each year being represented by an animal (zodiac sign). It is said that a person displays the characteristics of the animal of the year in which they were born.

During the Chinese New Year's celebration, people participate in many traditional activities. The Chinese believe that as they enter a new year, they should put behind them all things of the past. They clean their houses, pay off debts, purchase new clothes, paint their doors and window panes, and even get new haircuts. These activities symbolize new life and new beginnings.

Homes are decorated with flowers and paper decorations stating wishes of prosperity, good luck, happiness, good fortune, wealth, and longevity for the coming year. Decorations of the incoming zodiac animal are also displayed. Red and gold are very popular colors to decorate with. Red represents power happiness, vitality (and scares away beasts). Gold represents wealth and good fortune.

One very important tradition of the Chinese New Year is exchanging gifts. A traditional gift that is given is small red envelopes filled with "lucky money". These envelopes are given to children by their family and friends. The red color is used to bring good fortune, and the money inside is used by the children to buy holiday treats. These envelopes symbolize the giving of good fortune.
Food is also very important to New Year's celebrations. Families and friends get together for large feasts. Before they eat, they place their food on alters and make offerings to the gods. The foods served at these feasts vary, but what is served is always a tradition for that family.
The dragon is another popular symbol for Chinese New Year. It is a symbol of strength, goodness, and good luck, and supernatural forces. The dragon is said to be a mythical combination of many animals. During New Years, one of the main events is a large parade down the city streets. As part of this parade, people dress up in dragon costumes and dance down the streets. These costumes are made of brightly colored silk and decorated very extravagantly. Some of the dragons are 100 feet long! Men and boys perform intricate dragon dances with one person manipulating the head of the dragon and the rest moving the body.

A Chinese New Year celebration would not be complete without fireworks. There are many beliefs about why fireworks are used. One is that the noise wakes up the dragon who will fly across the sky to bring the spring rain for the crops. Another belief is that the noise of the fireworks is supposed to scare away all evil spirits and misfortunes, preventing them from coming into the new year. In fact, gunpowder was invented in China over 1000 years ago for that very purpose. Firecrackers are thrown at the feet of the dragons in the parade to keep them awake for the celebration. The dragons are believed to sleep the rest of the year.

It is important to remember that Chinese New Year is not only celebrated in China. Anywhere there are Chinese people, there is a Chinese New Year celebration. The specific activities of the celebration often vary depending on the region, but the basic principles are the same.


Spectacular fireworks have ushered in the Chinese New Year, but not everyone is celebrating. Millions of people are spending the holiday in miserable conditions, with power and essential services cut off by the worst weather in a century. Chinese leaders spent New Year's eve visiting badly-affected areas. One city in the south of the country has been without power for three weeks. Scores of people died in snow-related incidents in the runup to this public holiday, with millions of people delayed as they tried to return home for celebrations.

Our family's prayers go out especially to the children in orphanages who are existing in very bad conditions. Many are without power and water. Diapers cannot be washed or dried, food is in shortage and people working there are spending hours walking through snow and ice to get there and get home.

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