After the prosperous year of the pig, we are now entering 2020 — year of the rat! In western cultures, rats are nothing but bad news, but, in Chinese tradition, rats are connected closely to wealth and abundance! Their incredible rate of reproduction has also made them a symbol of fertility.
If you aren’t familiar, we’re talking about one of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac: an important component to Chinese New Year. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s find out what the Chinese New Year entails and uncover the distinctions between this celebration and the New Year festivities we celebrate in North America.
Also named the “Spring Festival,” Chinese New Year is China’s most cherished holiday. In fact, it has been celebrated for thousands of years. This holiday is the longest of the year and begins on the first day of the lunar calendar. The festivities continue until the 15th day of the first month. This year, Chinese New Year lasts from January 25th to February 8th.
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The Chinese Zodiac
Every new year is marked with one of the 12 animals of the zodiac, each with their own special characteristics that symbolize new blessings, goals to strive for, and lessons to be learned. In order, they are:
These animals are also accompanied by one of the five Chinese elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. For example, this year is the year of the metal rat, which is supposed to signal that those born this year will have expensive taste and stubborn attitudes, among a number of other attributes.
Chinese New Year Traditions
China is a country of many different subcultures and festivities and traditions vary among different families and communities. Many people celebrate the Laba Festival, which marks the beginning of the entire holiday. During this time, ceremonies are held in respect for various deities and ancestors. Practitioners often pray for fortune and success in the year to come. This ceremony has roots in Daoism, however, those from several different religions can still practice the holiday and hope for the same good luck.
During the spring festival, each individual day is dedicated to specific traditions and activities, though these can vary between communities, as previously mentioned. “Little Year” is the first official day of the spring festival, which involves a thorough house clean to sweep away misfortune. This festival has a deep-rooted connection with the stove god, who reports household activities to the heavens each year. Special foods consumed on this day include sugar melons and baked wheat cakes.
Other festival days include an “in-law” celebration, in which a married woman must bring her family to her parent’s home for lunch, bearing gifts. Other days are dedicated to one of the Zodiac animals — folktales are told about each, while people provide offerings. On the day of the rat, some families leave crumbs or crackers in the corners of their homes as a sign of good faith.
The Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival marks the final days of Chinese New Year festivities. This festival lasts five days and is considered the exciting climax to the holiday. The festival bears a number of meanings but is commonly known for the celebration of family and togetherness. Some consider it similar to Valentine’s day.
During this festival, participants create and light lanterns and release them into the sky — an act that celebrates freedom, and has roots in several religious practices. People also practice moon gazing, tell riddles, and share traditional snacks and foods. Commonly made foods during the lantern festival include rice balls, which are eaten for dessert.
During this time, people also give their friends and family money packed in red envelopes. Red is a color that represents luck and happiness and gifting money in the color red is expected to grace receivers with even more blessings. This tradition is so important, it’s actually considered impolite to refuse to open one in front of the giver.
Parades are common among communities during the lantern festival. Performers create vibrant and elaborate costumes puppets and dance to the beat of traditional Chinese drums in what is called the Dragon Dance. The Lion Dance, a similar festive activity, is also performed. Dancers wear lion costumes with moving eyes and mouths and even roll around the floor like giant cats.
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