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Chinese New Year Celebrates the Year of the Rabbit

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by Lusy Lisyanova

The Chinese New Year has been celebrated for hundreds of years, and yet not many people in the United States are familiar with its meanings and rituals.

Known as the Chinese Lunar New Year, the holiday is based on the lunar cycle, thus the date is not fixed.   This year, it begins on February 3rd.  Although it is called the Chinese New Year, it is celebrated by many other countries, such as Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, etc.  This holiday is celebrated for fifteen days, many of which carry specific traditions and rituals. 

In preparation for the New Year, families make sure to thoroughly clean their houses.   In doing so, they cleanse their house of bad luck and make room for good luck to enter their households during the New Year.   Families then  purchase presents, decorations, festive food, and fireworks.   As anyone who has ever lived in a Chinese New Year-celebrating country will affirm, every single household purchases excessive quantities of fireworks, ranging from firecrackers, to butterfly rockets, to bottle rockets.   They will then proceed to set off these fireworks very late into the night, and even into the early hours of the morning throughout the entire fifteen-day celebration of the New Year.   Although some of these fireworks are dangerous and cause numerous injuries – some serious – every year, people are never discouraged from buying them. 

The first day of the New Year is cause for the most fireworks and celebration.   It is the day that the gods are welcomed to earth.  On this day, many people refrain from eating meat.  Families pay visits to their oldest living relatives and children are given traditional red envelopes filled with coins, called “li xi.”  It is also considered bad luck to light fires or to use knives for cooking on this day, so all families cook their festive food the night before, on Chinese New Year Eve. 

The second day is a day of prayer.  Families pray to their ancestors and to their gods.  Business people hold a special morning prayer for a prosperous new year ahead.   It is also the day that married daughters visit their biological parents, as they seldom have the opportunity to do so otherwise. 

On the third day, superstition holds that families should keep to their homes, and  avoid paying visits to their relatives and friends’ homes. 

There are no specific rituals designated for the fourth day.  The reason for this is  that the number four is an ill omen in Mandarin-speaking countries, as the word “four” is the same work as “death”.   People are very superstitious of this number and try to avoid it as much as possible.  For instance, many buildings, especially hospitals, do not have a fourth floor – meaning that there is no button in the elevator between the buttons marked 3 and 5, and that the fourth floor is always left empty, dark, and unused.

On the fifth day, the people start off their mornings by eating dumplings for breakfast and then spend the latter part of the day celebrating the birthday of the god of wealth. 

The seventh day is the birthday of the common man.  On this day, everyone ages by one year. 

On the eighth day, families celebrate the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor.  The next two days are also devoted to praying to the Jade emperor and celebrating his birthday. 

On the thirteenth day, many people refrain from eating meat and consume only vegetarian food.  The purpose of this is to cleanse their bodies from the excessive consumption of food over the past two weeks of festivities. 

Finally, the fifteenth – and last – day is arguably the most beautiful day of the entire celebration.  It is the day of the Lantern Festival.  On this day, families light candles outside of their homes in order to provide light to guide spirits who have gone astray.   People also walk through the streets with lanterns, creating the illusion of a sea of floating lights.

The Lantern Festival is celebrated in different ways in different countries.  In the example of Taiwan, a gigantic lantern is erected every year at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial.  The lantern is built in the image of one of the twelve animals of the animal zodiac.  This year, the lantern is in the image of a rabbit, as it is the year of the rabbit.  During certain times, the lantern is marvelously lit up with brilliant differently-colored lights.  The lantern makes one grand rotation and is then turned off and stands in darkness until it comes time for it to make another rotation. 

Regardless of the country that people live in, the traditions associated with the Chinese New Year remain very similar.  Ms. N, a Vietnamese national living in the United States, recounts her childhood experiences of celebration the Chinese New Year in her home country:

 “Asians stress being perfect on the eve of New Year – they clean the house, cook perfect food, wear nice dresses, etc., so that the rest of the year will flow perfectly like that.  In my family, we prepare for this special occasion for weeks. We clean the house and strip off all the leaves of yellow cherry trees so that the flowers bloom on the exact new year day.  Then we  go to markets to purchase some Asian foods (basically, pork, eggs, pickles, jams preservative fruits, fresh fruit especially watermelon). We gather red papers to decorate the house, and incense to burn for our ancestors. We have a worship place for them with their pictures displayed in the living room.  Then we go pay tribute to immediate family and friends, and roam around the city to see the festival that shows dragon dance.”

“Back then on this New Year, my parents took me to visit my grandparents home to pay tribute to the elders and then my extended relatives from my parents’ sides. I was little then and my parents taught me how to verbally wish the elders what they want to get for the whole New Year. Elders want to live longer with family, so I said something like “I wish you live a long healthy life”. For relatives who still work, I wish for them to have more money. Every year I wished for the same things and I grew sick of it and was embarrassed because I didn’t sound sincere.  But guess what I get for wishing them well? Money. Yep, they give money to me because I’m the “little one”. It’s the Chinese tradition that the grown-ups give lucky money to children. The highest I could get was 2 million VND. In Chinese, lucky money is called “li xi”. They put the money in red envelopes, and I was fascinated with the design of the envelopes and the red color of it.  There have been warnings on the news of this custom of giving li xi because children spent the money for the wrong purpose like gambling. Knowing this, my parents purchased me a piggy bank and told me to accumulate the li xi in there. Now, I still have someone giving me li xi because they don’t want me to miss the tradition in America.”

Ms. N further went on to state that of all the Chinese New Year’s traditions, the giving of the li xi is her favorite one, “because of the money and also the feelings of being a kid again.”

Finally, when asked how Chinese New Year traditions differ in Vietnam, Ms. N explained that “We are heavily influenced by the Chinese, so the traditions are the same. Except, in China it’s legal to burn firecrackers on New Year.  It’s illegal in Vietnam.”

 This tradition brings many Asians back to their native countries to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit.

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