Gongs crash and firecrackers explode as a wily dragon brings in the New Year. The Chinese calendar dates back more than 4,600 years and the end of winter has been celebrated even longer.
Family members gather on New Year's Eve for a feast. Artistically-cut red paper banners and poetic messages printed on gold material adorn houses. Well-wishing people greet each other with a New Year slogan, "Gong Xi Fa Cai." Neighborhoods remain in light throughout the night as the days will become longer and Spring will follow.
Chinese New Year is based on both the lunar and solar calendar. It is celebrated on the first new moon on or after the mid point between the Winter Solstice, December 21 or 22, and the Spring Equinox, March 20 or 21. The inception of Spring usually falls on the 45th day after the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice.
Chinese New Year, which usually occurs in February, differs from the January 1st New Year celebrated in most of the Western world in many ways, but two very important differences seperate the customs.
Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, is celebrated at the start of spring, when life returns to the earth. It has been an important ritual in the agricultural history of China. Much of the Northern hemisphere is still dormant as Western society counts down the last few seconds of December 31, according to the Gregorian calendar.
Many Westerners begin the New Year in debt following the Christmas holidays, while it is customary in Chinese society to begin the New Year free of debt. Spring cleaning brings good luck and rids the house of unwanted problems and bad spirits. Much of the focus of Chinese New Year is to insure good fortune in the year ahead.
The first day of the Chinese New Year resembles old Christmas Day traditions in some ways. It is an occasion to bring gifts to family and friends. Children may receive money wrapped in red paper - an indication that the family is prosperous or that it has been rewarded for hard work.
The year is characterized with a sign of an animal, such as an Ox, Dog, Tiger or Dragon. The sign of the year a person is born in can affect their personality traits or success in life.
Following a night of revelry, Chinese New Year is acknowledged for 15 days, though only the first two or three days are public holidays. The two weeks conclude with the Festival of Lanterns, celebrated with folk dances and songs. Following the Lantern Festival, work resumes in the fields and towns with households in good shape.
These customs came to U.S. port cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, with Chinese workers in the mid-nineteenth century and spread with the building of the railroads. Prominant Chinese neighborhoods could be found before the turn of the century in Oregon lumber towns and Arizona mining camps. Chinese workers settled in rural Texas, near Hearne and Calvert, around 1874. About 24 Chinese families worked in the cotton fields before moving to cities like Houston. Chinese immigrants also found work and settled in Northern Mexico.
Today, Chinese business districts thrive in most major U.S. cities and important Chinese traditions are continued to help maintain cultural identity. Many of the festive occasions, such as Chinese New Year, are held as public events for all to enjoy. The exciting Lion and Dragon dances, and acrobatics are popular on Spanish-language television. Many Chinese traditional arts are carried on by heritage societies, college organizations and professional touring artists.
-- Mark D. Lacy
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