Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy New Year--Again! (Plus Giveaway) by Pamela Sherwood

Horse Sculpture in park in Zhejiang Province, China, photo by Jakub Halun
After a year in which Christmas and New Year's blew in and out like a tropical storm (at least in my house), it's something of a relief to have a "do-over" on the latter.  Chinese New Year just happens to fall on January 31, so Gung Hay Fat Choy, everyone! Happy Year of the Horse!

Like so many Chinese festivals, the New Year is a lunar celebration, meaning that it tends to fall between late January and mid-February. So if your birthday occurs before the Chinese New Year, you are still a child of the previous year, associated with that zodiac sign, regardless of what the Gregorian calendar says.  (By the way, 2013 was the Year of the Snake, and I was once informed with great earnestness by a Chinese storekeeper helping me shop for a dinner party that "The Horse follows upon the tail of the Snake"--a suitably portentous-sounding phrase!)

Those born in the Year of the Horse are considered to be charming, intelligent, strong-willed, dominant, and accustomed to having their own way. Sounds like a classic alpha, whether male or female! However, as Wood is the prevalent of the five Chinese elements in 2014, children born in this year will supposedly be more reasonable and less impatient than, say, Fire Horses.

Whatever the zodiac animal who predominates, Chinese New Year offers its own traditions, customs, and rituals. For example, it's common to clean house in the days leading up to the New Year, to sweep the bad luck out the door, so the good luck can enter. It's also recommended that, if one is getting a haircut, it should be done before the end of the old year, because hair and good fortune are said to be linked. (Don't ask me to explain that one!)

Nian costume, photo by Drhaggis
Another Chinese New Year's ritual that remains close to my heart is the Lion Dance, which I used to watch as a child visiting Chinatown during the holiday. Legend has it that the Nian, a fearsome beast who lives under the sea or in the mountains, would come out of hiding during the New Year and frighten people, especially children, but it could be driven away with loud noises and the color red.

The Lion Dance enacts some of that legend, with drums and firecrackers providing the former, while the latter is represented by red lanterns, red scrolls, and red robes worn by dancers (those who aren't operating the lion costume from within). Lions with horns are generally considered to be Nians (and traditionally fought with), while hornless Lions dance to drive away bad spirits and are rewarded for their efforts with gifts of fruit, vegetables, and money (in little red envelopes--a pleasant sight for anyone observing the holiday!)

When I was a kid, I used to mistake those shaggy-headed lions with their gaping, flapping mouths for dragons. I later learned that dragons were operated by far more people underneath, and the costume was held aloft on poles, rather than operated by the dancer's hands and feet. But a troupe of lion dancers is still a very impressive sight, whether gamboling, prowling, or rearing aloft to snatch the storekeepers' offerings that dangled from the doorways. And while I haven't made the trek down to Chinatown recently (having become less fond of crowds and explosions over the years), the distinctive drum beat of the dance has become rooted permanently in my aural memory: once heard, never forgotten.
Lion Dance Troupe by Chinatown Gate in Seattle, Washington, photo by Joe Mabel

Wishing everyone, East and West, a happy and prosperous New Year! And in honor of the holiday, I'm giving away signed copies of both of my books, Waltz with a Stranger and A Song at Twilight, to one commenter until midnight, PST, February 2 (yup, Groundhog Day). Please leave your email address if you would like to enter the giveaway.


  1. That is so cool! I always wanted to be part of a Chinese New Year celebration. I'm year of the Dog.

  2. What a fabulous lion...I always thought those were dragons too. I'm a boar (aka pig) :)

  3. I'm a boar too, Christy! I always hated it when I was a kid. I was chubby already, and now the Chinese Zodiac is calling me a pig, too?!? I got over that eventually, LOL.

    Nice post and pictures! I'd love to attend a real Chinese New Year celebration some day. I'm all about the pageantry. ;)

  4. Happy New Year! Last year my then second grader was very interested in all the animals and so we looked on the internet to see what animal everyone in our immediate family was. My husband made such a big deal about being a dragon how it was the coolest one of them all. We were born in the same year so I told him I was a dragon, too. After our research my son and I had the very "hard" task of informing my husband that he was not born in the year of the dragon, but with his January 13th birthday he was actually born in the year of the rabbit. He didn't like that one bit. So in our house we have a rabbit, a dragon, two snakes (twins), a rooster and an ox, such a menagerie in our house.
    Please don't enter me into the contest as I already own both of your lovely books.

  5. I'm in the year of the tiger which for me is very fitting lol. How could anyone resist those gorgeous dancing dragons and/or lions lol! Happy New Year.


  6. I never knew there was a difference between the lion and the dragon dances! Happy Chinese new year. :) I am the snake - so not fitting. LOL
    lattebooks at hotmail dot com

  7. Brooklyn Ann, if you get a chance to see a Chinese New Year celebration, definitely don't pass it up! Your ears may ring for a while afterwards, but the experience is worth it!

    Christy, the lions are impressive enough to be dragons--at least, I've always thought so!

    Gina, the Chinese zodiac has a strange sense of humor: I was born in the Year of the Snake, which is nothing if not ironic, since I'm almost as phobic about reptiles as Indiana Jones! I hope you get a chance to see a New Year's celebration--if you live near a Chinatown, there's almost certain to be some kind of she-bang this weekend, as the festival tends to last over several days.

    Sarah, my mother and one of my closest friends are Dragons--and more than a bit smug about it! I'm a Snake (though I thought for years that I was a Horse--until I learned about the lunar calendar), and my sister is a Rooster. Hope you enjoyed the books!

    Shana, Happy New Year to you as well!

    catslady, the Tiger is a very strong, dominant sign in the Chinese zodiac! Happy New Year!

  8. Susan, I didn't know there was a difference either--not for years! Until I actually saw an official dragon dance, with poles and many more people under the costume. But there are always fireworks and good luck offerings, so that aspect is the same. Happy New Year!

  9. Traveling to China is on my bucket list. Soon I hope. Till then I'll prepare by reading books and watching movies.

  10. Interesting post! I was born in the year of the sheep, the description of which seems to fit me fairly well. Would love to see the Chinese New Year festivities in person sometime!

  11. kathy, I know of a few people who traveled to China, and were impressed by the sheer weight of history there.

    Cheryl, I hope you get the chance to see them! Just be sure to cover your ears when they set off the firecrackers.

  12. as a child growing up in Chinatown in NYC, especially during Chinese New Year, was a very special time for me!!!!

    thank you for the giveaway!!

    cyn209 at juno dot com

  13. cyn, I wasn't born near Chinatown, but we'd make a special trip to see the New Year's festivals when I was a kid!