Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Or for those who don’t speak Chinese…

Happy New Year!

February 3 marks the Lunar New Year. As many of you probably know, 2011 is the “Year of the Rabbit” (or hare, depending on the translation).

Fewer probably know that it’s actually the year of the Metal Rabbit (whoever said Metal was dead didn’t speak Chinese), as the Chinese zodiac incorporates not only 12 animal signs but also five elemental signs, which rotate on a 60-year cycle (5 x 12…easy math when you think about it).  The elemental signs supposedly supplement the animal’s innate characteristics, adding secondary qualities to individuals born in those years.  (Note that I use the term loosely, as they’re not all positive.)

As a historian with a specialization in Chinese language, history, and culture, I like the idea of Chinese New Year and the traditional activities that surround it. Anyone would like three days of partying, complete with feasting and fireworks, but the holiday becomes even more important when you factor in the tradition of returning home to celebrate and reconnect with relatives, neighbors and long-standing family friends.  (By setting things on fire! Yes!)

Children often receive “lucky red envelopes” filled with money and gifts of candy or other sweets, and family tables are filled with foods that carry special meaning or wishes for the New Year. For example, long noodles symbolize a lengthy life and dumplings (jiaozi) resemble the golden ingots that functioned as currency during the Ming Dynasty.  Other foods are chosen because their names are homophones for important wishes: health, wealth, and good fortune.

When I can, I like to visit Chinatown on or around the Lunar New Year. Not only are the shops at their absolute best, but the festival atmosphere is infectious even if you don’t know the culture very well.  If you’ve never seen Chinese New Year first hand, it’s definitely worth a look!