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Berger’s Burg: Lion Dancers celebrate Year of the Dragon

On Feb. 5, millions of Chinese (and people of other Asian nationalities) celebrated the start of the new year - 4698, the Year of the Dragon. Their lunar calendar is precisely 2,637 years older than ours, give or take a few dozen Groundhog Days.

That number boggles my mind. Why, that figure is a greater aggregate of years than the equivalent of three Bob Dole lifetimes, in addition to those of Milton Berle, Bob Grant, Phyllis Diller and my Uncle Mayer. That, dear readers, is seniority carried to its utmost.

The two-week celebration is the biggest and brightest of all Chinese holidays. It is a time for the clearing away of any remaining bad luck in the old year and obtaining a clean, fresh slate for the next. It is believed that various god-like spirits report what occurred during the past year to the ruler of heaven, the Jade emperor (something like being reviewed by an IRS auditor).

Preparations for the big event actually began weeks earlier. Every house is thoroughly cleaned as a means of sweeping away all evil spirits. Every debt is paid and collected (Don't tell Gloria. I still owe her $5.30 for when the Giants didn't make the playoffs.)

It is a time of family reunions, with family members traveling long distances to return home. The head of the household, usually the eldest living male, offers the spirits of past ancestors, and family members burn incense and red candles. A large amount of food is put on the family altar as an offering to the ancestors spirits. Children often receive red envelopes containing lai see or lucky money.

On New Year's Day, all shops and public places are usually closed. People wear new clothes while visiting parents and friends. Married family members give lucky money to the unmarried and people say lucky words to each other

The celebration is family-oriented and everyone, related or not, is welcomed to the New Year's Eve reunion dinner. Many Chinese revelers open the celebration by burning a paper image of the evil god, Tsao Wang. This ritual is done supposedly to send him on his way one week before the new year. Don't you wish that burning a paper image of Osama bin-Laden would send him on his way also? The holiday is a time when gifts are exchanged and banquets are shared.

It is a time when fish is eaten for luck, dumplings for change, rice cakes for progress and soup balls for unity. The wearing of red is prevalent because it is the symbolic color of joy in China. One of the highlights is always the exciting and colorful Chinese Lion parade. Gongs, cymbals, and drums beat wildly as the giant lion jumps and runs among the people, growling and pawing the air.

The Chinese Lion is not really a lion at all. It is a make-believe animal, one part cat, one part dog, and two parts imagination. Its head is made of paper mache and bamboo, its colorful body of burlap and silk. It takes two people to make the lion dance. One person is inside the head, using hidden triggers to flap the lion's ears and move its eyes. The other person is under the body of the lion, jumping around and wiggling the tail.

The dance begins with the drums, cymbals, and gongs. The noise wakes the lion up and he is grumpy. He circles around, growling and glaring. Small children scream and run to their mothers. Older children laugh and tease the lion. Finally, the lion bows to the audience and begins to dance.

After all this exercise, the lion is hungry. Someone offers it some lettuce, a symbol for wealth and good luck. The lion chews it up and spits the leaves over the audience. Everyone cheers! To end the dance, the lion bows again and the dancers came out from under the costume to hear the cheers of the people.

The following excerpt from the book, "Lion Dancer" by Kate Waters and Madelaine Slovenz-Low, describes how a little Chinese boy, picked to play the lion, prepares for the Lion Dance: "Hi! My name is Emie Wan. This is the story of the most important day in my life. This Chinese New Year, I will perform my first Lion Dance on the streets of New York City. Jenny (my sister) and I find it very hard to sit still because the Chinese New Year Eve is Friday night. On Saturday morning we will dance on the street. Today we practice the Lion Dance. The dance will scare away evil spirits and bring good luck for the New Year.

"My father tells me to check my new lion's head. I pull the strings inside that make its ears wiggle and its eyes blink. Then I test the switch inside that makes its eyes light up. My father watches me go through my dance one more time before we leave. On the way home, he tells me that I am doing well, and that my dance will bring honor to our family.

"My mother has been cooking all day. After dinner, my mother lets me play Lion Dance music. The ceremony will begin at midnight. My mother sends Jenny and me to our room to take a nap. But I can't sleep. At 11 o'clock, my father gets us up. It's fun to be up so late at night. My father helps me, Jenny, and our friend Alvin, with our uniforms. A few minutes before midnight, my father begins the ceremony for my lion. All new lions have one.

"He honors the ancestors. He mixes red cinnabar and rice wine. Red is good luck. He dabs my lion's eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and body with the red mixture. Our dance begins. We must always keep the lion moving. I watch the other dancers to make sure I stay in step. Jenny and Alvin take turns dancing in the tail. At the end of the dance, the Buddha leads us right up to the gongs, cymbals, and drums. Bang! Bang! Bang! The roam is full of noise!

"The Lion Dance is done for tonight. Before we go home, we watch a videotape of the ceremony. We make sure we did our steps right. Tomorrow is the big day. We will dance in the streets! "We meet early the next morning for last-minute instructions. We go up and down the streets.

The lion must never stop moving. We go inside restaurants and stores to bring good-luck blessings. Every place we go people give us red envelopes. How I love the Chinese Lion Dance!"

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

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