The Lunar New Year started this past weekend. Also called Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, this is the big annual holiday for over two billion people. More than a quarter of the world’s population, and many more than celebrate Christmas. In Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, and in cities around the world where these nationals now live, the “Lunar New Year” is a big event. So it is in Vancouver.
Red-coloured banners, ornaments, and lanterns abound. In Chinese culture, red stands for energy, happiness, good luck and success. Shopping malls advertise Lunar and Chinese New Year celebrations with all kinds of special features: night markets, food halls, musical performances, traditional dances, children’s craft workshops and art exhibits, lantern displays, a “Community of Castles” pop-up display illustrating different scenery and architecture, special sales, photo opportunities and door prizes. Supermarkets such as Osaka in Park Royal West Vancouver, which I have written about previously (here, and here), overflow with brightly coloured packages of special holiday sweets.
The 47th Annual Chinese New Year Parade took place on Sunday, starting at the Millennium Gate on Pender Street in the heart of Vancouver’s old Chinatown. It went on for two hours over a 1.3-kilometre route. Thousands lined the streets to watch the lion dances, traditional dance troupes, marching bands, and martial arts performances.
With a friend, I attended the Opening Ceremonies of the Lunar New Year on Saturday afternoon. This was the first day of the 15-day New Year festival. It was held at the International Mall, beside the Millennium Gate. Under bright red lanterns soaring to the ceiling, hundreds gathered to hear greetings, in English and in Mandarin, from Vancouver’s leading politicians and many of the local consular corps. I thought the speeches would go on forever.
Then a man wearing traditional costume threw red envelopes out to the crowd. Red envelopes signal the sharing of blessings and are traditional New Year’s gifts from parents, grandparents and older friends to children. Red envelopes normally contain money. These red envelopes contained lucky candies. An agile acrobat performed with hoops. And, finally, the Lion Dance began, with two giant multi-coloured dragon lions gyrating at length on the stage. The audience loved it.
The first day of the Lunar New Year changes every year. It is celebrated on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice and falls anytime between January 21st and February 20th on the Gregorian calendar (which we use).
Each year in the Chinese calendar is named after one of twelve animals. The animals rotate on a twelve-year cycle. In order, they are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. People believe that the years represented by the animals affect the personalities of people born during that year.
This year celebrates the Year of the Rat. The years of the Rat include 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020 and 2032. Although rats are the smallest of the zodiac animals and may be scorned by many, they are recognized as an animal with spirit, wit, alertness, flexibility and vitality. If you were born in the Year of the Rat, you are thought to be adaptable, quick-thinking, intuitive, energetic and optimistic in outlook.
You can find which animal you are by inserting your Gregorian birthdate into this Chinese Zodiac Sign Calculator.
Someone born in October 2009 was born in the Year of the Ox. According to the Chinese zodiac, oxen are “diligent, dependable, strong and determined. Also patient, methodical and persistent. Having an honest nature, they have ideals and ambitions for life, and attach importance to family and work. They achieve their goals by consistent effort.”
Most people born in 2007 were born in the Year of the Pig. But someone with an early January birthday (January 8, 2007, for example) is actually born in the Year of the Dog. This is because the previous year continues until the new year begins.
Dog is a symbol of loyalty and honesty. The Chinese zodiac says that people born in the Year of the Dog “possess the best traits of human nature. They are honest, friendly, faithful, loyal, smart, straightforward and have a strong sense of responsibility.” Although they may be “a bit introverted and timid,” they can make true friends for life.
Several times over the weekend, people wished me a happy new year. They said, “Gong hei fat choy.” According to Chinese new year etiquette specialists on the internet, however, using that phrase is technically not correct. That wish is actually for the recipient to become wealthy in the year ahead and is best used with fellow workers or in business. For your family and friends, better to say “Xin Nian (new year) Hao (good)” (pronounced: shin nee-an how).
Xin Nian Hao, everyone.
The fifteen days of Asian New Year have come and gone. Already. Where has February gone? It’s the Year of the Pig and, in West Vancouver where we have come to escape the worst of eastern Canada’s winter, the celebration was bright, cheery and more extensive than I remember it being ever before. I missed the big Asian New Year’s parade held in Vancouver on February 3rd. Next year. But I did catch the festivities held on the north shore.
On January 31st, at the Osaka Supermarket (originally bought by T & T and then by Loblaws), I was struck by the colourful decorations which greeted shoppers on arrival. Ah yes, it is Chinese New Year I thought. I wandered over to the multiple high piles of large boxes, bags, and packages full of cookies, candies, rice cakes, decorations, and other goodies that the Chinese buy in great quantities to share with family and friends during the holiday. There were so many, all so enticing, so mouth-watering, all seriously not recommended for my diet.
Then I found a variety of boxes full of kinds of oranges from all over the world. Among them was a pile of large red plastic baskets, each filled with mandarin oranges, all individually wrapped in paper and cellophane. Here was a Chinese New Years delicacy that I could indulge in. At $8.80 for a basket of 24 oranges, I thought them a bargain and bought a basket for myself. These proved to be the largest, sweetest, most delicious mandarin oranges I had eaten since I was a kid. I learned that oranges were a lucky food for the Asian new year, and that these oranges were especially imported from Japan. Later I bought two more baskets to take to my friends.
On the first weekend of February, just before the first day of the lunar New Year on Monday February 4th, West Vancouver sponsored two full days of festivities to celebrate Asian Lunar New Year. I was struck that the festival was not limited to the Chinese but extended to all Asian nationalities who celebrate the lunar new year. That gave my head a shake; so many cultures in the world take part. Bright red and gold balls, and placards full of facts about lunar new year traditions decorated the atrium of the West Vancouver Community Centre. People were everywhere, many dressed in red, eager to take part in the action.
I was fascinated. Young men did Kung Fu, others beat on drums, young girls and boys played on a grand piano, troupes of children dressed in lavish costumes performed intricate dances, and several young women played traditional instruments. Almost everyone present picked up an activity “passport” which led us to different stations where we could learn more about new year activities. We learned the names of the twelve revolving years of the lunar calendar, and about the qualities of The Year of the Pig. We learned what foods are traditional for the season, and why red packets are given as gifts. Two young girls designed and distributed elaborate sugar treats which we tasted with delight. Altogether, a totally delightful event.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, the cashier at the Fresh Market, our local supermarket, handed a red packet containing a chocolate coin to each customer at the register. Yet another New Year tradition extended into the broader community. We are indeed lucky to live in a multicultural community where we can celebrate New Years many times of the year in many ways. Happy Lunar New Year.