Tradition, feasts, parades highlight Chinese New Year

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A tourist in Asia watched as two prominent Chinese people were being buried. As the first casket was lowered, several women came forward and placed chicken, rice, bread and wine on the coffin. “Why?” the tourist asked. “So that the body of the deceased will not go hungry,” answered a mourner. When the second casket was lowered, a single cup of rice was placed on it. “Why so little food?” the tourist asked. “That was Sing Lee. He was on a diet.” — told to me by a Chinese friend

I admire Asians for their family ties, respect for the elderly, moral values, millennia−old customs and sense of humor. I also adore my Chinese daughter−in−law and two grandsons. This column is dedicated to them.

On Jan. 26, millions of Asians will celebrate the year 4707, the Year of the Ox. This event continues their nearly 5,000 year tradition of naming lunar new years after animals. The ox is second in the rotating 12−year cycle.

In addition to animals determining the traits and situations in the year for people born in that year, the names of five ancient elements — metal, water, wood, fire and earth — are assigned to each year and play a personality role. This five−year cycle of characteristics is overlaid on the 12−year cycle to modulate the character of people born in one of the 12 years. And would you believe colors also enter the mix? This year is purple.

Culturally, the lunar new year is important. The religious aspect of the holiday emphasizes the clearing away of bad luck in the old year and obtaining a fresh start in the next. It is also believed godlike spirits report what occurred in people’s lives during the past year and pass this information on to the ruler of heaven, the Jade Emperor. This is sort of like Santa and his list.

Many Asians open the celebrations by burning a paper image of the evil god, Tsao Wang. This act will send him on his way one week before the new year. Exploding firecrackers are then set off. Besides delighting revelers, the loud noises are believed to pave the way for the kitchen god. I can hardly wait to light a firecracker, which will hopefully pave the way for Gloria and me to the kitchen of our favorite Chinese restaurant for shrimp in black bean sauce, spare ribs and wonton−matzo ball soup.

Beginning on New Year’s Day, many participants pay visits to friends and perform “Ching Sen,” the ceremony showing respect for ancestors. They also exchange the traditional greeting “kung−his fa−ts’ai,” which means “happy greetings and may you gather wealth.” Gloria, please wish me that greeting. I need the stock market to be kinder to me.

On the last day of the year, final preparations are made for the family’s New Year’s Eve feast, the celebration’s highlight. Much of it has been prepared in advance because the use of knives and cleavers is forbidden during the holiday. Before the meal, all doors are sealed with paper strips to prevent the entrance of evil. No one may enter or leave until the strips are removed before dawn. Following the meal, gifts — usually choice fruits — are exchanged. At midnight, solemn greetings and family ceremonies begin.

This is an exciting occasion for children. They receive presents — “lai see” (lucky money), usually in $2 denominations, placed in “hongbai” (red envelopes). Why? Because the number “two” is considered lucky and only married couples give children gifts.

The festivities usually last from 10 to 15 days or until the Feast of the Lantern Festival, when paraders carry lighted paper lanterns. Street dances by dragons and lions (symbols of strength and goodness) fill the parade route.

“Ox−ites,” people born in the Year of the Ox, the symbol of the harvest, usually are leaders, bright, dependable, patient, calm, good listeners, cheerful and possess strong ideas. People, however, will wrongly consider them cold.

Ox−ites include Bill Cosby, Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher. No, Rosie O’Donnell and John Goodman, although chubby, are not ox−ites.

So at this joyous occasion, and before we indulge in our shrimp in black bean sauce and wonton−matzo ball soup, allow Gloria and me to wish all my Lunar New Year observers and everyone else a “kung−hai­−fa−ys­ai,” which in Chinese means “Gung hay fat choy.”

Gloria, pass me a second bowl of my favorite soup. Why doesn’t Lunar New Year come around more often?

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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