January 26 ushers in the Year of the Ox as China celebrates its New Year. This coming year is 4707 in the Chinese calendar. The Ox is said to represent success through fortitude and hard work, stability, dependability, and perseverance. Some also refer to this day as the Lunar New Year because the festival begins on the first day of the lunar month in the Chinese calendar. (A curious note: New U.S. President Barack Obama was born in 1961, which was another Ox year.)
Monday is just the beginning of 15 days of festivities culminating in the Lantern Festival on February 9. During the Lantern Festival, colorful, multicolored lanterns resembling butterflies, dragons, dragonflies, and other animals are displayed along with lanterns depicting historical events, legends, poetry, and even riddles. Solving these riddles has become a fun and popular activity, and sometimes lantern riddle parties are held at various temples that night. Some cities also have elaborate light displays in addition to dragon and lion dances, parades and a variety of other celebratory events. The Lantern Festival is also popularly called Chinese Valentine's Day because, historically, single women were allowed to go out in public on this date, where they might catch the eye of an eligible man. In modern times, the Lantern Festival provides an opportunity for singles to connect by playing matchmaking games with the lanterns.
Chinese New Year traditions are oriented toward attracting good fortune and prosperity, ensuring health, honoring ancestors, maintaining close family ties, and inviting peace to each household. Family, reuniting loved ones, and remembering familial heritage are key themes at the New Year. Travel is now at a peak in China as workers and students return home for family reunions.
As families and friends in China gather for New Years, there will be a bounty of foods served, symbolizing a hope for prosperity in the coming year, and expressing thanks for the good fortune received in the previous one. A New Year's Eve meal often consists of fish, chicken, dumplings, nuts, noodles, and sweets like tikoy, a popular sticky and sweet rice flour confection. Also on the menu at this time of year are oranges and fresh pineapple; fruits are believed to bring in good tidings.
Left: Yo Pineapple Delight from Big Island Rose Designs
Right: Mandarin Plum Soy Candle from AJ's Country Cottage
Chinese New Year is probably best known for its lively festivals and colorful parades accompanied by fireworks, and dragon and lion dances. The explosive sounds of firecrackers, meant to ward off evil spirits, can be heard, while the pungent scent of lighted joss sticks, an incense traditionally burned as a religious offering, fills the holiday air.
Right: Celestial Star Raku Incense Jar with Cork Lid from Fehu Stoneware
Red is a prominent color during the New Years festival. There are many stories about why red is considered auspicious and a color of good fortune. Some say the tradition refers back to a legend about a man-eating beast being fended off by loud noises and the color red; others say red symbolizes fire which is used to scare away evil spirits. In any case, red is used liberally at the New Year, from decorations to clothing. Gifts are given in red envelopes to bring good luck; most often these "red packets" contain money and are given by elders to younger people, such as parents to children, or married couples or grandparents to unmarried young adults. Other small gifts exchanged between friends and relatives may include fruits, cakes, biscuits, or candies.
The coming of a new year always seems to inspire changes and new beginnings as we move from old to new. The Chinese have a similar tradition of welcoming the new and sweeping away old, bad luck by clearing out clutter and giving their homes a thorough cleaning before the first day of the new year. In the days leading up to New Years Eve, empty boxes and broken items are discarded, doors and windows are checked to make sure nothing blocks the entrance of good fortune, new clothing and shoes are purchased, altars are cleaned and given new decorations, and sometimes doors and window-frames receive a new coat of red paint. Once midnight arrives, no sweeping or cleaning occurs, and the use of knives and other sharp objects like scissors and needles is avoided so good luck won't be brushed away or the threads of good fortune severed. To further set the tone for a good upcoming year, homes and especially doorways are often decorated with "lucky" paper cut-outs and red banners (usually vertical), known as couplets, on which are written auspicious sayings and poems.
BBEST would like to wish those celebrating Chinese New Year the best of health and much happiness, peace and prosperity in the Year of the Ox.