I live in Little Italy in NYC, which is essentially three blocks of Mulberry Street as the rest of the area has been completely taken over by Chinatown. And whilst the area normally remains open over Christmas and New Year, today everything around here is closed because it’s the Chinese New Year (Of The Dragon).
The Chinese New Year celebrations are also called the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year and last for fifteen days. These pictures were taken last year one block from my apartment on the final day of the New Year celebrations, which is known as the Lantern Festival.
In much the same way that Americans travel home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Chinese travel home for the New Year. Transportation authorities anticipate that more than three billion trips will be made during this year’s holiday. I was talking with a Chinese friend of mine last week and she told me that children do particularly well during Chinese New Year as they often get gifts of red envelopes with money from their relatives. It’s also most often the time that Managers give out bonuses to their employees.
It is also the tradition that every family cleans their house thoroughly before Chinese New Years Eve to sweep away any ill-fortune in the hope of making way for incoming good luck on New Years Day. Windows and doors are decorated with red colour paper cuts and couplets with such popular themes as good fortune, wealth, happiness and longevity.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian which would come on the first day of New Year to eat livestock, crops villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a small child wearing red. The villagers realised that the Nian was afraid of the colour red and so every New Year the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors and also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian, which never came to the village again. The beast was eventually captured by a Taoist monk called Hongjun Laozu who turned it into his mount.
In some ways it’s unfortunate the Nian is no longer around as it would be useful to clean up some of the many politicians who descend on Chinatown to try and collect votes for the next elections.
The first day of the Chinese New Year (officially beginning at midnight) is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth. Many people, especially Buddhists abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. (Yay for the vegetarians amongst us). Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, so all food to be consumed is cooked the days before. It is also considered bad luck to do any cleaning on this day.
The first day is regarded most importantly as a time to honor one’s elders and families and so most people visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, usually their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Last year was the Year Of The Rabbit, which is meant to be calm and placid. Looking at what actually happened in the world last year, I think the Year Of The Rabbit didn’t get the memo. This year is the Year Of The Dragon, which is said to be packed with power and punch. So if last year was supposedly calm, makes me wonder what is going to happen this year. Maybe there is something to that whole end of the world scenarion on 12/12/12. No doubt, time will tell.
And years of the dragon are always a popular one for anyone getting married, starting a business, or having a child. Dragon years bring luck and vim. The idea of ”dragon babies”, who are said to possess great strength and leadership qualities like the emperors of old, has even prompted a baby boom in years associated with the dragon.
In his 1992 PhD thesis, Daniel Goodkind, at the University of Pennsylvania, noted the spike in births in the Dragon years of 1976 and 1988. Birth rates compared with the preceding year of the rabbit rose among Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia by about 25 per cent. So if you’re thinking of having a child and aren’t already having lots of sex, now is the time to start if you want a Dragon baby.