Marking the end of winter in the ancient Chinese calendar, this year's Chinese New Year begins today, Feb. 10 in the Gregorian calendar. As with most cultures' New Year celebrations, family, fireworks and forgiveness are key elements.
In China, this holiday is the most important and the longest celebration of the year. The Chinese calendar is based on sun and moon cycles (lunisolar), so the first day of the New Year is calculated in that reference: the second new moon after the winter solstice. This translates to somewhere between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20 in the Gregorian (Western) calendar.
While the calendar was originally developed for agricultural purposes, the legend of "Nian" is the cause for celebration. Nian (which also means "year" in Chinese) was a ferocious beast with the body of a bull and head of a lion. He lived in the mountains, but came down to the towns during the lean winter months - some accounts specify on the full and new moons - to eat the villagers. Said villagers would hide in the dark waiting for Nian to find sustenance elsewhere.
At some point, either a group of townspeople or one old man, depending on the storyteller, decided to try setting off firecrackers and beating on pots, pans and gongs in an effort to frighten the monster when he arrived in town. They realized that the beast was also afraid of fire and of the color red as he scuttled back up the mountain. From that time, people ward off the beast Nian by decorating with red paper and lanterns outside their doors and setting off firecrackers and noisemakers for the Nian celebration. People wear red clothing during these two weeks for good luck, and many begin the year wearing new clothes as a precedent for prosperity.
Families gather on New Year's Eve for a reunion dinner that includes pork, chicken, regional specialty meats, seafood and fish. Traditionally, the first day is spent welcoming benevolent spirits and deities and making noise to chase away the evil ones. The house has been cleaned thoroughly to sweep away any residual bad luck from the past year, and it is considered bad luck for the coming year to use a broom on this day. Families honor and visit their elder members, and children are given red envelopes containing paper money (in even numbers).
During the second day, married daughters visit their parents and friends, and people give treats to their dogs because another legend says the second day is the birthday of all dogs. It's considered unlucky to go visiting on the third day, but some go to the Temple of Wealth and have their fortunes told. The fifth day is the God of Wealth's birthday, so people eat dumplings and set off firecrackers in his honor.
The seventh day is known as "the common man's birthday," and everyone grows one year older. Buddhists also avoid meat. By the eighth day, most businesses and government offices are open again, and employers host a lunch to thank their employees for their efforts.
On the ninth and tenth days, the Chinese honor the Jade Emperor of Heaven's birthday through prayers and offerings of food and gifts. The thirteenth day is a day of cleansing the body with vegetarian food. People also honor the memory and values of General Guan Yu of the Han dynasty. Winning more than 100 battles, he is considered a symbol of strength, justice and success.
The New Year celebration ends with the Lantern Festival. People carry and decorate with brightly colored lanterns in different shapes and sizes. They also light candles to help guide spirits back home.
The Chinese use a second calculation, a zodiacal one, to predict traits, characteristics and hot spots for the coming year. The first day of this "Stem-Branch" calendar, differs slightly from the lunisolar one. The Stem-Branch system utilizes 10 stems and 12 branches to count the days, months and years. The stems consist of the yin and yang for each of five elements in this sequence: yang wood, yin wood, yang fire, yin fire, yang earth, yin earth, yang metal, yin metal, yang water and yin water.
The 12 branches are named for animals and follow this sequence: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. They are not associated with modern astrological constellations or the traditional zodiac. Predictions are made, however, by identifying some of the animals' characteristics. A full cycle through all of the stems and branches takes 60 years.
This year, which began on Feb. 4, 2013, is the year of the Black or Water Snake. It is associated with yin, or slow, soft, cold, dark and wet. The Snake is introspective, intuitive and methodical but also a bit sneaky. The Water element with the Snake is associated with finances, relationships and emotions, but also darkness and instability.
Predictions say that 2013 will favor research and technology. Planning and caution in contracts and business dealings is recommended, but achieving one's dreams looks promising with hard work. Relationships could be turbulent because of Snake's sensual, possessive nature and penchant for attacking when provoked. People may turn inward to explore spirituality, direction and knowledge.
During the last Water Snake year, 1953, the world experienced Dr. Jonas Salk announcing success with the polio vaccine; Sir Edmund Hillary and his expedition reaching the summit of Mt. Everest for the first time; Nikita Khrushchev coming to power in the Soviet Union; Hugh Hefner publishing the first issue of Playboy; scientists discovering the link between lung cancer and cigarette smoking; Cambridge University publishing discoveries on the structure of DNA and its chromosomes and their link to heredity.
New Year's celebrations are optimistic and friendly. The Chinese put aside the bad luck, disagreements and negative energy of the past year for a more hopeful outlook. Since before the Ming Dynasty (14th to 17th centuries) couplets of well-wishes have been used as spoken greetings and painted in gold on bright red paper and posted on doors or porches. Many of the written couplets consist of four symbols composing a beautiful graphic.
Most relate to bountiful harvests, prosperity and happiness for the coming year: "May your small investments bring ten-thousand-fold profits;" "Greet the New Year and encounter happiness;" "May all your wishes be fulfilled."