Today, February 7th, 2008 is the Year of the Rat, which is also known by its former name of Wu Zi. In China, the lunar calendar is still used to determine traditional holidays like Chinese New Year. Since the lunar calendar is based on the phases of the moon, which has a shorter cycle than the sun, the Chinese New Year is never on the same day each year, but typically falls somewhere between January 21st and February 20th.
Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality
The Chinese New Year animals are the following: rat (shu), ox (niu), tiger (hu), hare (tu), dragon (long), snake (she), horse (ma), sheep (yang), monkey (hou), rooster (ji), dog (gou), and pig (zhu).
This is the year of the Rat, and people born this year are said to be charming, hard-working, passionate, and practical.
To prepare for the New Year, Chinese clean their houses, repay any money they owe, get their hair cut, and buy new clothes. They decorate their houses with signs that wish peace and luck for the coming year.
Chinese New Year celebrations last for 15 days with plenty of activities scattered throughout. Among the more popular Chinese New Year activities are the “Welcoming of the Gods of Wealth and Prosperity,” dragon dances, and the “Festival of Lanterns.”
The Welcoming of the Gods of Prosperity, or Jie Cai Ceng, occurs on the fifth day of Chinese New Year when it is believed that those gods come down. Firecrackers are set off in hopes of attracting prosperity and good fortune. Dragon dancing also occurs on this day as well as on the final day.
The Festival of Lanterns marks the final day of festivities. A variety of lanterns are lit creating a visual feast for the eyes. Paper lanterns are made in the form of the animal of the year or in the shape of a rabbit. The rabbit lantern represents a Chinese myth about a goddess who jumped to the moon with her rabbit companion. Those with pure hearts are said to be able to see this goddess and her rabbit on the moon on this final day of Chinese New Year.
One of the prominent Chinese New Year decorations is called “chun lian.” A chun lian is a temporary decoration placed outside the home at the entrance used only during Chinese New Year. Vertical strips of red paper contain Chinese characters expressing happy, uplifting messages about the coming new year. The characters are typically hand painted using Chinese calligraphy. These strips of paper are then posted on the front door with the first chun lian hanging vertically on the right side of the door, a second on the left and an optional third posted horizontally
One very important tradition of the Chinese New Year is exchanging gifts. A traditional gift that is given is small red envelopes filled with "lucky money". These envelopes are given to children by their family and friends. The red color is used to bring good fortune, and the money inside is used by the children to buy holiday treats. These envelopes symbolize the giving of good fortune.
The dragon is another popular symbol for Chinese New Year. It is a symbol of strength, goodness, and good luck, and supernatural forces. The dragon is said to be a mythical combination of many animals. During New Years, one of the main events is a large parade down the city streets. As part of this parade, people dress up in dragon costumes and dance down the streets. These costumes are made of brightly colored silk and decorated very extravagantly. Some of the dragons are 100 feet long! Men and boys perform intricate dragon dances with one person manipulating the head of the dragon and the rest moving the body.
Some delightful traditional Chinese New Year recipes can be found at these links:
Cantonese: Gung Hay Fat Choy! (may prosperity be with you)
Mandarin: Xin Nian Kuai Le! (Happy New Year)