Thursday, February 19th marks the 4713th year according to the Chinese calendar. Have you ever sat at a Chinese restaurant and started at the place card with the bright red edge, looking to see what animal you are? Well I know I have. My family compares the characteristics of the animal of their year of birth and my parents compare their animals to see if they are a good pair. Obviously this isn’t used as a way to choose your life long partner in America, but it is always fun to look at. This tradition originates from China and their New Years.
As legend goes, long ago Buddha asked all the animals to come and meet him one morning and twelve showed up, a rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Accordingly, Buddha assigned one animal to each year. This upcoming year will be the year of the sheep. Since the Chinese follow the Lunar Calendar, their New Year’s doesn’t always fall on the same day.
Chinese New Year celebrations are flamboyant and extravagant. Some individuals take weeks off to prepare for the festivities. All the colors are red to represent fire and drives away any bad luck. Traditionally poems are written on red papers and children get money in red envelopes. Families get together and have huge feasts on New Year’s Eve. One of the main foods is fish because the Chinese word sounds very similar to the word for surplus. The type of fish is also chosen based on what the word resembles. Here are a few examples:
- Crucian carp: As the first character of ‘crucian carp’ (鲫鱼 jìyú \jee-yoo\) sounds like the Chinese word 吉 (jí /jee/ ‘good luck’), eating crucian carp is considered to bring good luck for the next year.
- Chinese mud carp: The first part of the Chinese for “mud carp” (鲤鱼 lǐyú /lee-yoo/) is pronounced like the word for gifts (礼 lǐ /lee/). So Chinese people think eating mud carp during the Chinese New Year symbolizes wishing for good fortune.
- Catfish:The Chinese for “catfish” (鲶鱼 niányú /nyen-yoo/) sounds like 年余 (nián yú) meaning ‘year surplus’. So eating catfish is a wish for a surplus in the year.
- Eating two fish, one on New Year’s Eve and one on New Year’s Day, (if written in a certain way) sounds like a wish for a surplus year-after-year.
- If only one catfish is eaten, eating the upper part of the fish on New Year’s Eve and the remainder on the first day of the New Year can be spoken with the same homophonic meaning.
There are also many rules as to how the fish must be placed and eaten, each with symbolic reasoning regarding having wealth, prosperity, and surplus for the year to come. In addition to the fish, dumplings are a classic addition to the feast. Vegetables and various meats are combined and placed into a sought and elastic dough to make these traditional dumplings. The different types of fillings have varying symbolism as well. Other items at the feast include noodles, rice cakes, and fruit.
Fifteen days after the New Year, the festivities are still continuing with the Lantern Festival. Intricately designed lanterns sent off into the ceaseless sky and dragon dances occur that day as well. The reason for the 15 day celebration is that marks the full moon cycle. Lastly, ancestors are worshiped and remembered during this time. For all of you who celebrate this festival, Happy New Year!