By David J. Glenn
But in Chinese, Korean, and other Asian cultures, there's no such thing as a dull New Year's – and the Chinese have had nearly 4,700 of them.
Fireworks, developed by the Chinese centuries ago, and other noise-makers to scare off evil spirits, extravagant parades, and an array of traditional food and entertainment always mark the lunar new year.
Flushing, as usual, will be the epicenter of Queens celebrations. Despite the controversy over which committee should have gotten the parade permit (see Page E9), the event celebrating the Year of the Snake will have all the usual flair and excitement and be “a parade for everyone,” said Fred Fu, president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association (who, by the way, was born in 1953, also the Year of the Snake). “It's an event for the whole community” in Queens, he said.
The parade, complete with floats and marching bands, kicks off at 11 a.m. (assembling at 10 a.m.) Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Hong Kong Supermarket at Main Street and 37th Avenue, and weaves through Flushing along Kissena Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue for a good 90 minutes. Events after the parade include folk dancing, Asian music, exhibits, crafts, tea ceremonies, booths for several community organizations and, of course, an abundance of Oriental foods at Flushing High School, PS 20 and other sites.
At 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, Lotus Hsu, a longtime member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flushing, hosts a performance of traditional Chinese music and dance at the church, 147-54 Ash Ave. The congregation's children will offer a lion dance parade to bring in the Year of the Snake.
What has been known in the United States as “Chinese New Year” has come to be called the Lunar New Year since different Asian cultures not only have some different traditions, but celebrate different numerical years, although the 12-year cycle of naming the year after animals – Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig – is the same. In all cases, though, the calendar is based on the phases of the moon.
In China and Taiwan, the upcoming new year is 4699 (what this actually dates from is not known for sure, Fu said). For Koreans, the new year is 4334, probably dating to the first king of that nation. As a comparison, on the Jewish calendar, also lunar, the current year is 5761, dating back to the Biblical account of the creation of the universe. On the Muslim calendar, the current year is 1420, dating to the emigration of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina.
In Chinese cultures, the new year is a big event. It can last for 15 days and is a time for family gatherings, paying respect to ancestors, and enjoying a variety of dishes.
By tradition, what one does, and eats, in this celebration can determine how the year will go. Most families will include black moss seaweed and dried bean curd in their festive meals to ensure wealth and happiness.
New Year's treats are usually prepared well in advance. These can include vats of water chestnut pudding, purple taro pudding, or white radish pudding – which is more like a stew, with julienne radishes, rice flour, pork, dried shrimp, scallions, and white pepper.
The “kitchen god,” who reports directly to the celestial “Jade Emperor,” is appeased with offerings of sweet foods.
Other foods not for the diet-conscious are a sesame-coated, deep-fried dumpling called “jin dui,” and “crunchy smiling faces,” formed from sesame, sweetened dough and sweet-potato slices. Deep-fried “gok jai” – “little crescents” stuffed with peanuts, sugar, and sesame – are also popular.
The common greeting for the new year is “Gung hay fat choy” – “Congratulations for striking it rich” – or, more realistically, “Gung hay” (“Congratulations,” or “Good luck”). Children get “lai see,” money in small, red envelopes.
In Korea, the lunar new year isn't celebrated quite as elaborately as in China, but there are still family gatherings and a variety of foods. Families bow and pay respects to the departed in the “jae sa” custom: Lit incense sticks and dishes of meat, rice, and potato noodles are arranged in a specific order around pictures or lists of names of the loved ones.
Korean children, as in China, get “good luck” envelopes of money, but not until they bow to the elders.
In Vietnam, “Tet,” the new year, is a time to give thanks, forget about bad things in the past, ask for blessings, and start anew. In preparation, families usually scrub the house clean, and decorate it with plum blossoms.
As in China, the statue of the kitchen god is appeased with sweets, often with a dab of honey on its lips.
Popular Tet treats include dried watermelon seeds, candied ginger, coconut, pineapple, and “banh chung,” a square rice cake stuffed with beans and pork.
In Cambodia, the start of the new year – which usually falls in mid-April – is observed for three days, and besides being a time to celebrate and eat, it's also a spiritual time, with people going to the temple each day. After services, it's traditional to play games like scarf-tossing and a version of tug-of-war.
At sunset, the community builds a mountain of sand in the temple – the higher, the better, since they believe they will have as much health and happiness in the coming year as the grains of sands in the mountain. In another custom, married women dress elaborately with jewels and fancy hats, and play a game of “toss ball” with eligible young men.
The new year also falls at a different time on the Western calendar in India – “Diwali” usually falls in late October or early November. It's also a time for gathering with family and friends, to pay homage to Lakhmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, and Ganesh, the god of wisdom and good fortune. To help these gods find their way to one's home, lamps are lit all around (“Diwali” is short for the Sanskrit “Deepawali,” or “row of lights”).
In Japan, the lunar new year is not what it used to be. The nation adopted the Western, solar calendar in the late 1800s, virtually abandoning the lunar calendar it had used for centuries. Buddhist temples ring their bells shortly before midnight 108 times on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31.
The Japanese consider first events of the new year to be very important, such as witnessing the first sunrise, which is thought to bring good health throughout the year.
Of course, in a technologically advanced society like Japan, some old traditions are bound to be changed. The “Osechi” family feast that women used to spend days preparing is now available in supermarkets, ready to serve.
But children don't have to worry about not getting their new year's money – the tradition of “otoshi-dama,” the “New Year Treasure,” is still going strong.
As all these traditions show, whether it's 1420, 2001, 4334, 4699, or 5761, whether it's based on the moon or on the sun, a new year is a time for all people to look back to what good and bad they've done, and look ahead to how they can do better.