Through time-honored customs and traditions, the celebration of the Lunar New Year—which marks the start of the Chinese lunar calendar—welcomes good luck and prosperity throughout the Asian community. This year the 15-day celebration started Sunday, and related advertisements and announcements mostly have one common image: a rabbit.
“The rabbit symbolizes longevity, peace and prosperity,” said Shinta Hernandez, dean of Montgomery College’s virtual campus, one of the college’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Planning Committee group leaders and founder of the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution at Montgomery College.
“It’s also meant to bring hope to those who are a rabbit.” Those born in 2011, 1999, 1987 and every 12 years previous were born in the year of the rabbit.
According to Hernandez, in Vietnamese culture, this year would be the year of the cat.
The lunar calendar depicts 11 other animals that represent the zodiac: tiger, ox, rat, pig, dog, rooster, monkey, goat, horse, snake and dragon.
The celebration serves as a blessing for Chinese people, according to Rita Lewi, director of the art gallery and homecare at the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center in Gaithersburg.
The week prior to the festival season is all about preparation, according to Lewi. Cleaning the house is a way to sweep away bad luck from the past year, and “bring in the happy new year as a healthy, peaceful year for everyone,” she said. Debts are paid and children get new clothes in preparation for the new year.
According to Lewi, in the heavenly world there is a Jade Emperor to whom the Kitchen God, Zao Shen, reports about each family’s good and bad behavior in the past year. The Jade Emperor punishes families who have done a lot of bad. In an effort to avoid punishment, people prepare sweets to give Zao Shen a sweet mouth.
Certain dishes are a must-have, including fish, rice cake and dumplings. After the fish is finished, the tail and head remain, meaning the family will have a surplus for the year. Dumplings are shaped similar to ancient Chinese currency, according to Lewi. And sticky rice is meant to aid those seeking a promotion.
Some well-known customs come from the legend of Nian, a monster that feasted on human flesh. Nian was scared off by the color red and by firecrackers exploding.
“That’s why the Chinese start to wear red clothes and also put up everything red and [set off} firecrackers” Lewi said.
Another custom of the Lunar New Year is giving children money in red envelopes. This custom is derived from the legend that a demon named Sui used to terrorize children, according to Lewi.
Parents wrap coins in red paper and leave them by their children’s pillow to scare away the beast.
Hernandez said the envelopes are also a sign of good fortune and luck.
Lunar New Year parades often feature a traditional lion dance, and, according to Hernandez, people in some cultures “feed” their red envelopes to the lions for good luck.
Celebrations this weekend
The Chinese Culture and Community Service Center presents a Lunar New Year celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 22 and Jan. 29 at Westfield Montgomery mall, 7101 Democracy Blvd. in Bethesda. The event features a traditional dragon dance, exhibits and performances curated by the CCACC. More information can be found here.
The City of Rockville greets the Lunar New Year with a free celebration from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 28 at Thomas S. Wootton High School, 2100 Wootton Parkway in Rockville.
The event features performances, “to-go” activities and snacks. Performances start at 11 a.m. The activities were organized in partnership with Rockville’s Asian Pacific American Task Force. More information can be found here.
In collaboration with the Li-Ling Chinese Academy, the Germantown Library, 19840 Century Blvd., presents It’s a Lunar New Year Celebration! event, which will include performances and learning about the Year of the Rabbit. The event is 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Jan. 28. More information can be found here.