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Chinese New Year; 2011 - Year of the Rabbit

Living in the Pacific Northwest, my family has had the great fortune to be exposed to many Asian cultures and traditions that have enriched our lives. One of our most favorite celebrations is the Chinese New Year, which, incidentally, begins today. Whether we spectate at the Lantern Festival or visit Spring Festivals or feast with friends at their home or at a restaurant, we find great enjoyment not only in the cuisine but the symbolism of wealth, health, and prosperity that runs deep in the Chinese tradition.

As you are undoubtedly aware, today begins the year of the rabbit. If you’re not familiar with these calendars, let me give you a bit of history … and a bit of legend. After all, a bit of legend is what gives this celebration its sparkle and color.

The Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the First Moon of the lunar calendar. That date varies each year with the calendar reset from as early as January 21st to as late as February 19th. The Chinese Lunar Calendar is one of the most ancient calendars in the world. According to legend, the Chinese emperor some 4,000 years ago held a race to figure out the sequence of animals in the 12-year cycle of his new calendar. The rat came in first by hitching a ride on the ox's nose and jumping over the finish line at the last possible moment. The rabbit was fourth, so we are currently in year number four in the cycle and year 4708 in the overall calendar.

While the Chinese have many colorful, meaningful and significant festivals and holidays, Chinese New Year, more than the others, are dedicated to renewal and thanksgiving and strengthening of family ties.

Days of preparation precede this day. Preparations for the Chinese New Year in old China begin well in advance of this day. The 20th of the Twelfth Moon is set aside for the annual housecleaning. Every corner of the house must be swept and cleaned in preparation for the New Year. Spring Couplets, written in black ink on large vertical scrolls of red paper, adorn the walls or sides of the gateways. These couplets, short poems written in Classical Chinese, are expressions of good wishes for the family in the coming year. In addition, symbolic flowers and fruits are used throughout the home, and yes, there is symbolism attached to that as well.

Today, Chinese families will gather, partake of traditional menus, the children and young adults will receive red Lai-See Envelopes filled with money and in some cases, presents will be exchanged. And many times when you leave the home of your host for the celebration, you will be presented with a tangerine or an orange, symbolic for luck and wealth in the coming year. For more on the symbolism of Chinese New Year, click here.

Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated for two weeks. On the 15th day, New Year celebrations end with the Lantern Festival. On the evening of that day, people carry lanterns into the streets to take part in a great parade. This is known in my family as the Dragon Parade. Young men will highlight the parade with a dragon dance. The dragon was traditionally made of bamboo, silk, and paper, and might stretch for more than hundred feet in length. The bobbing and weaving of the dragon is an impressive sight, and a fitting finish to the New Year festival. My son was delighted one year to be the object of a dragon’s shaking, which is symbolic for good fortune in the year to come.

Traditional Chinese New Year menus vary as do American Christmas or Thanksgiving menus, according to family tradition. However, there are a few universal ingredients often found on the New Year table. These include; a whole fish to symbolize abundance, a whole chicken to symbolize family unity, dumplings to symbolize prosperity, noodles to symbolize long life, and oranges to promote wealth.
Here are a couple of recipes for dumplings I particularly enjoy.

To find out what animal represents the year you were born in, click here.

To those of you who celebrate, Happy New Year, and may your year of the rabbit be filled with God’s blessing and providence and wisdom. And may you always remember that God is the author of your future and He is your source. While legend is fun to celebrate and traditions are essential in the binding of our families and cultures, let us never forget that it is He and He alone that bring all good things into our lives.

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