Ringing in the Wood Horse

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Lunar New Year celebrations are abundant, colourful, and all about family.

It’s one of the biggest holidays on the planet, setting hundreds of millions of people into motion. All across eastern Asia, they travel back to their home towns to be with their relatives, to put up decorations, to feast on traditional foods, and to hand out sweets and packets of cash.

 In China, it’s called Chunjie (literally “Spring Festival”), in Vietnam it’s Tet, and Singapore celebrates it as “Lunar New Year.” But whatever the local name, the New Year’s celebrations provide an excellent window into one of the world’s oldest cultures.

The Chinese calendar, thousands of years old, features 12 animals and five elements: fire, water, wood, metal, and earth. Together the animals and elements form a 60-year cycle in which January 31, 2014, will see the start of the Wood Horse Year. Because it’s a lunar calendar, the exact date of the New Year’s celebration shifts from year to year, as seen from the perspective of the Gregorian solar calendar, but it always falls in January or February.

“Chinese New Year’s for me is about gathering with family and visiting the oldest family members to show respect,” says Kylie Lee, Finnair Cargo’s sales manager in Hong Kong. “We start preparing a week in advance. We cook a special home-made pudding, buy flowers, and clean up our flats.” 

Decked out in red

But flowers are just the beginning; celebrating properly involves a long shopping list, on which most items are some shade of red, orange, or yellow, the traditional colours of good fortune. People buy red posters and decorations, fake red firecrackers, and willow catkins. They pick up a plentiful supply of mandarin oranges, pomelos (a citrus fruit), sausages, and even something called “waxed duck.” They buy little red envelopes into which they’ll put small-denomination banknotes—red ones, if possible—and present them to any young, unmarried friends and relatives that they meet during the first 15 days of the new year. They stock up on sweets to serve to visitors. To symbolize the fresh beginning that the new year brings, they might also buy new clothes and shoes and even get a haircut.

In addition to shopping, another important preparation, as Ms. Lee notes, involves cleaning one's home from stem to stern. This serves to sweep out the bad luck from the year that’s about to end. Conversely, brooms and dustpans must not be used during the first several days of the new year because they might accidentally sweep away good luck coming into the home. If for some reason a person absolutely must sweep during the New Year’s celebrations, superstition says the dirt should be pushed into a corner and left there, to be disposed of only after the fifth day.

An abundant beginning

When Lunar New Year’s Eve finally arrives, the big event is the reunion dinner, at which all the members of a family crowd around a table crammed with food. Traditionally the reunion dinner features ten courses, including many dishes chosen as much for their symbolism as for their taste. For example, there is usually always one fish course because the Chinese word for “fish” sounds almost the same as the word for “abundance,” something everybody hopes to have in the year ahead.

After finishing the reunion dinner, many people go and pray at a temple, and when midnight rolls around, there is almost always a public fireworks display to be enjoyed. Fireworks were invented by the Chinese more than a millennium ago, and although they are now banned for individual use even in many parts of China, they are an indispensable part of all major celebrations, a means of scaring away evil spirits who are believed to be afraid of bright lights and loud noises.

The daughter of Stella Liu, Finnair Cargo’s sales manager in Beijing, was born in the Year of the Horse and will turn 12 this year. “We’ll buy red socks, red underwear, and a red belt for her. It’s an old custom: you need to buy red things for somebody who was born in the same animal year. Red can prevent bad luck and bring wealth and good health,” says Liu.

Finnair Cargo would like to take this opportunity to wish its customers wealth and good health in the Year of the Wood Horse – all 384 days of it! Because the Chinese calendar is based on the moon, not the sun, the next year won’t start until February 19, 2015; that’s when the Wood Horse trots out the door and the Wood Sheep strolls in.

Text by Peter Weld

Published January 22, 2014

Category: Local features

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