THOUGHT YOUR Y2K worries were over? Welcome to the year of the Angry Dragon.
Saturday is the first day of the Chinese year 4698. Twelve animals represent the Chinese zodiac cycle, and this year, the Golden Dragon takes the astrological reign. You see, the cycle repeats every 60 years, and when it begins anew, it’s a “golden” year for those born during that time.
Although the dragon in Chinese mythology is a far more benevolent and beneficial creature than in Western folklore, some say 2000’s Golden Dragon is also an Angry Dragon. That means all animals have to be cautious for the next 12 months so as not to enter potentially touchy scenarios. Even when fighting for the side of right, careful consideration, not impetuosity, should rule all actions. Of course, those under the Dragon sign (born in 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000) should have it pretty good, and it’s an opportune time to pick up some knowledge.
To guard against evil spirits and ensure good fortune for the coming year, Chinese New Year celebrants display symbolic decorations and food trays. Here are just a few items readily available in your local Chinatown, Chinese grocery stores and bookstores and even multicultural gift shops.
Glutinous rice flour is mixed with sugar and water and steamed to make the treat nian’gao. The word gao also translates to ascension, so eating the sweet rice cake will help one rise up in the coming year. New Year celebrations include food that connotes prosperity, wealth and unity.
Visitors who enter a household bedecked for Chinese New Year know that the prosperity tray is readily available for them. Sharing prosperity means passing out sweets, such as red dates, melon seeds and fruits. As the Chinese word for eight rhymes with getting riches, the tray is octagonal. On this particular tray are candied ginger, lotus root, lotus seeds, young coconut, melon and kumquat. While not on this tray, both black and red watermelon seeds make an appearance this time of year.
From birthday dinners to ancestral offerings, homonyms determine what dishes are served. Even how the food looks is considered; for instance, the roundness of mandarin oranges and dumplings symbolizes unity (coming full circle). Pummelos and mandarin oranges stack up for a fragrant fruit display. Mandarin oranges suggest perfection in their roundness and represent longevity as well. The homonym for poumelos, which are similar to grapefruit, is “to have.”
Things to pass out
Children and unmarried people should really get out this time of year, because they’re eligible for the “lai see” or “hungbao,” the red envelopes stuffed with crisp cash. While the money should be given in amounts divisible by two (to symbolize double greetings and appreciation), even single $1 bills can add up to a nice booty.
New year cards
New Year cards are an adoption of the western tradition of passing paper greetings. These cards feature the favored imagery of Chinese New Year and the culture as a whole. Carp, besides being beautiful, represent wealth. The lion is actually a rendition of the extravagant costumes used in the lion dances. The gold dragon, always a powerful and popular icon, is especially timely since it’s his zodiacal reign that starts off this year.
Ancestors are especially honored this time of year. Chinese households with ancestral shrines burn incense, often sandalwood, to honor those of the past. Incense can also be brought to temples or family members’ burial sites.
Besides burning incense, those paying respect to their forebears burn fake money. This ensures that they can live a comfortable afterlife.
Lighting Chinese firecrackers is supposed to frighten off evil spirits, but lighting them in the living room probably won’t bring much good luck and hanging real firecrackers might prove too much of a temptation for younger household members. Instead, this decoration is almost as good as the real thing without violating a fire code. Besides, firecrackers constantly crackle this time of year during parades, performances and at businesses where lion dancers visit to bring good luck.
The vertical red paper scrolls embellished in gold wish household members and visitors good luck, success and peace. The term hui chun’ or red couplets’ refers to the four-character inscription, with their typical greetings such as “May your spirits be at ease and prosperous,” “Peace upon entering and exiting” or “May one get one’s heart’s desires/May one’s handiwork be realized.” Some are intended for specific locales, like the kitchen or door. Some households hang these paper greetings year-round for perpetual luck and to ward off monsters.
With spring comes blossoms, which symbolize new life, growth and riches. If flowers bloom during the New Year festivities, that signals a particularly good year ahead. Most propitious would be the flowering of the peach blossom, as the peach symbolizes long life and a charm against evil. Where once peach blossom sprays were placed above building entrances to ward off evil spirits, today they are usually decorative household displays. Other favored flowers are the kumquat tree, the tiny orange fruit, narcissus and plum or cherry blossoms.