New Year's

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Chinese New Year
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History of the Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year dates back to 2600 B.C., when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. Legend has it that before Buddha departed from Earth, he summoned all of the animals to come to him. But only twelve came to bid him farewell. As their reward, he named a year after each one in the order they arrived. The Chinese believe that the animal that rules one's birth year has a profound influence on one's personality, saying: "This is the animal that hides in your heart." A complete zodiac cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each.

The Chinese use the New Year as a social alternative in determining one's age. Instead of asking someone how old they are, one would ask what their animal sign is. From there, they can sensibly estimate their age within the 12-year cycle.

Japan, Korea and Vietnam also observe this 4,703-year-old event, known by many as the Spring Festival. According to Emperor Han Wu Di's Almanac, it begins with the first New Moon of the modern New Year and ends on the Full Moon 15 days later.

A popular fable describes a village in China that was destroyed by an evil monster one winter night. The following year, the monster returned and decimated the village again. In anticipation for its visit the following year, the villagers formulated a plan to scare the monster away. Red firecrackers, drums and gongs were used to create loud noises to scare the beast away. The plan worked, and the celebration lasted several days during which people visited with each other, exchanged gifts, danced and ate delicious food.

The Chinese and Western New Years are both swathed in traditions and rituals. Preparations tend to begin a month from the date of the Chinese New Year (similar to a Western Christmas), when people start buying presents, decorations, food and clothing. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom, sweeping away any traces of bad luck. Doors and windowpanes are given a new coat of paint, usually red. Red symbolizes fire and has long been believed to drive away evil and bad luck. They are then decorated with colorful calligraphy on paper designs and couplets (chun-lian) with themes such as happiness, wealth and longevity printed on them. This all must be done before the Chinese New Year celebration begins.

The eve of the New Year is perhaps the most exciting part of the event, as anticipation slowly rises. Here, rites and customs are very carefully observed in everything from food to clothing. In most cases, it is a time for families to reunite and give thanks. Dinner usually comprises of seafood and dumplings, signifying various good wishes. Delicacies include prawns, for liveliness and happiness; dried oysters (or ho xi), for all things good; raw fish salad (yu sheng) to bring good luck and prosperity; angel hair (fai-hai), an edible hair-like seaweed to bring prosperity; and dumplings boiled in water (Jiaozi). This meal, known as "surrounding the stove" (Weilu), gives honor to Heaven and Earth and acknowledges the divinity of the household and those prior family ancestors who set the ground work for the families' good fortunes. It's customary to wear something red, again to rid evil spirits - but black and white are out, as these are associated with mourning. After dinner, more family activities take place relative to the occasion. At midnight, the sky is lit up by fireworks.

On New Year's Day, an ancient custom called Hong Bao (Red Packet) takes place. This involves married couples giving children and unmarried adults 'lucky money' in red envelopes. Then the family begins to offer greetings from door to door, first to their relatives and then to their neighbors. Much like the Western phrase "let bygones be bygones," grudges are very easily cast aside during the Chinese New Year. The 15th and final day of the New Year is marked by the Festival of Lanterns, which is a celebration with singing and dancing, as well as lantern parades involving children.

Find out what animal sign you are

Chinese New Year is celebrated on the First Full Moon of the New Year.