Woof! Woof! Happy Lunar New Year—Part 1: Introduction to Origins and Symbols
Gong Xi Fa Cai!
There are many tales on the origins of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. My favorite version is the one that describes the man-eating dragon Nian. He would terrorize the villagers once a year, but they soon realized that he feared the color red and loud noises—they used firecrackers and red objects to drive him away. The story is often told to young Chinese children and it is the basis for many of the Lunar New Year traditions we see in Chinese communities around the world today.
Lighting firecrackers was the way for the Chinese to send off the old year and bring in the new one. Today, fake firecrackers decorate shop windows of Chinatowns all over the world (some even imitate the explosive noises).
Chinese believe the color red can keep evil at bay and bring in good fortune. That is why everything is red during Lunar New Year—sometimes even the food! Oversized red lanterns decorate restaurant interiors, businesses will paste auspicious poem couplets on red paper along their doors, and everyone tries to wear as much red clothing as possible.
The first day of the Lunar New Year is today, January 29th, 2006. It is the Year of the Dog, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Those born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, or 2006 are all under this sign and their personality characteristics are loyalty, generosity, honesty and compassion.
Much of the traditions surrounding Lunar New Year in Chinese culture are based on homonyms, using the sounds of Chinese characters and applying the meaning to similar sounding words.
For example, the word for “fish” (yu) sounds similar to the word for “abundance.” Hence, a family will serve a whole fish for the Lunar New Year Eve meal to encourage abundance for the family in the coming year. I found these decorative red fish hanging along the vendor stands of the New York Chinatown Lunar New Year Flower Market on Friday. Now that leads me to the next example…
In the Chinese language, the word for “flower” (hua) sounds like the word for “fortune.” In Chinese culture, flowers are said to bring luck and prosperity into the New Year and therefore traditionally many families will buy flowers to decorate their homes for the festivities.
Certain flowers (and fruits) are favored for specific auspicious symbolic values. Peach blossoms signify longevity and happiness. Narcissus implies good fortune and prosperity. The kumquat tree is a sign of wealth, luck, unity and perfection. I found many real and fake varieties on the streets of Chinatown as well as in the Flower Market, which is organized annually by MoCA, United East Athletics Association and the Asian American Arts Alliance.
Fruit is another important element in the traditions and symbols of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Families often buy oranges and tangerines to give to their guests—they represent abundant happiness. Pineapples are also auspicious symbols as well and you can find a fake gold one in the picture at the top of the post. Do you see it?
For the last two weeks, piles of citrus fruit have been on the street vendors carts. I’ve spotted grapefruit and loads of kumquats on a walk through Chinatown on Friday. Tangerines can be found in tin pans because they’re offered as such in Buddhist and Daoist temples as well as to the Kitchen God. More on the religious influences of Lunar New Year in a few days.
In the meantime, please come back tomorrow for Part 2: The Edible Sweet Treats of Chinese Lunar New Year.
In the spirit of this year’s zodiac and to put in my effort for Sweetnicks’ Weekend Dog Blogging, here’s a new pic of D in her brightest New Year colors: