Chinese Year of the Tiger
Happy New Year! Happy Chinese New Year to be exact. This year, the celebration will begin on February 14th (Valentine's Day), ushering in the year of the Tiger. As always, it will be a time for families to come together and celebrate their unity and good fortune as they enjoy 15 days of feasting on delicious foods.
As with most traditions, Chinese New Year's origins begin with ancient folklore. As the legend goes, the ancient people of China lived in fear of a mythical beast called the Nian. The Nian was a fierce chimera like creature that resembled a lion, an ox, and a unicorn all at the same time. It was said that the Nian would always appear on the first day of the new year and terrorize the villagers by destroying their crops, slaughtering their livestock, and devouring their children. The people's only defense was to set food outside their houses in hopes of deterring the beast from eating anyone. This was their only means of protection until one year when they noticed that the creature would not go near a small child who was wearing a red cloak while clanging on a pan. The great and powerful Nian was afraid of the color red and loud noises! So, for every year after that, the villagers would hang red lanterns and scrolls in their windows and pop fire crackers to ensure that the beast would not return. The Chinese word for year is "nian" which is the same name as the beast so, the celebratory for Chinese New Year is "guo nian" or "the passing of the beast." Thus, Chinese New Year was born.
This coming New Year will bring with it the Year of the Tiger. The tiger represents power, grace, independence, and bravery. Every Chinese year is accompanied by one of 12 symbolic animal figures (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). Each animal carries its own unique attributes which is said to be passed on to people born in that year. So, if you were born in the year of the tiger, than congratulations, you're a Tiger! Well, tiger-ish anyway. Tiger people are said to be straightforward and outgoing. They never give up and are natural leaders, which is great because they also love being the center of attention. They can also be full of suspicion and too hasty when taking action, but they always take pride in what they do. The relationship between animal and man is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chinese New Year's symbolism. Even the food prepared for the celebration has strong symbolic meaning.
Chinese New Year is all about the unity of family and feasting. Friends and relatives travel from miles around to bring with them dishes that are considered to be good luck for the coming year. Each food has its own symbolic reference to good fortune. Pork and cabbage dumplings, called "Yuanbao" are shaped like old style gold and silver ingots, and represent prosperity. Long noodles, leafy greens, and whole long beans are all served to give blessing of a long life. Round sweet glutinous rice, cakes called "Nian Gao" (Year Cake) are eaten to bring early prosperity and quick ascension to new heights. Citrus fruits such as pomelo, tangerines, and oranges are given as gifts because their round shape is seen as a symbol of unity and togetherness. In fact, the Chinese word for orange sounds like the word "gold," the word for tangerine sounds like the word "luck," and the word for fish sounds like the word for abundance. The fish must be cooked whole with the head and tail to ensure a good beginning and end of the coming year. During Chinese New Year, all dishes must be prepared using whole or uncut ingredients to avoid misfortune; using a knife is considered very unlucky because it could sever the family's good fortune. Many of the festivities surrounding Chinese New Year also revolve around luck and well-being.
During Chinese New Year, beautiful ornaments are hung in homes and markets. Oval shaped red paper lanterns and posters with Chinese calligraphy can be seen everywhere throughout the celebration. Images of Koi fish can also be found as they represent surplus and success. Many cities with large Chinese populations celebrate the tradition annually with parades and Dragon and/or Lion dances which depict the battle between the people and the evil spirits. Compared to American holidays, Chinese New Year would have to be Thanksgiving, Christmas, and of course New Years all rolled into one. With so much symbolism of good fortune and togetherness spanning the 15 day duration of Chinese New Year, it is no wonder why the Chinese consider it the most important time of the year.