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Celebrating Chinese New Year

Of all the Chinese festivals celebrated throughout the year, the Lunar New Year is the most important and spectacular. Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. Because the holiday is based on the lunar calendar, the dates vary. This year, Chinese New Year will begin on February 18th.

China has been an agricultural country for thousands of years, and Chinese New Year celebrates the season for planting, as well as all new beginnings. At this time of year, families like to begin with a clean slate, so houses are cleaned from top to bottom, things that are broken are repaired, and everyone gets a haircut and new clothes. According to tradition, old debts cannot be collected after New Year’s Day so this is also the time to pay bills and settle debts.

On New Year’s Eve, the family gathers for a large banquet. The foods served have special meanings and are symbolic of what is wished for in the year to come. For example, tangerines, oranges, and kumquats represent good luck. The Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word meaning “surplus,” so a whole fish is served to symbolize abundance.

Firecrackers and dances are also important aspects of the celebration. Firecrackers are lit in front of each house to scare away the evil spirits. Dragon dances begin on New Year’s Day and are believed to bring wealth, wisdom, and power in the New Year. Lion Dances are usually performed for three to five days of the New Year and are thought to drive away evils spirits and bring good luck. Although the lion is not native to China, the Chinese consider it a symbol of power, wisdom, and good fortune.

The lion’s head is made of papier mâché and wood, and is elaborately painted and decorated with strings, fringes, tassels, and bells. The head can weigh more than 40 pounds. Attached to the head is the body of the lion. The lion costume may be operated by a single dancer who springs about while moving and shaking the head. More often, the dance is performed by a pair of dancers who form the front and rear legs of the lion. The lion is accompanied by musical instruments such as a drum, large and small cymbals, and a gong.

The fifteenth, and final, day of the New Year is the Lantern Festival. The highlight of the festival is a parade in which families carry beautifully designed lanterns around their city or a nearby park.