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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A New Year, by China and the Moon

Day after tomorrow is the Chinese Lunar New Year, which means tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and it’s time to be putting up the lanterns and thinking about the menu. The Chinese way of celebrating the new year is very different than our western one, and because of the differences their celebration has survived thousands of years and precipitates the greatest annual human migration on the planet. There’s a good reason for that.

If you’re in touch with the rhythms of the natural world, then the Chinese celebration has lots to recommend it. First, it’s tied to a natural event: the first new moon after January 21, which in practice means the second new moon after the winter solstice. That timing ties the new year to the great planetary cycles. It’s not an arbitrary date plucked out of a calendar with no connection to the seasons or the planetary cycles, as is ours. It reflects something larger and more substantial than merely human considerations.

Second, the lunar new year occurs at a time of the year when we’re past the worst of winter and everything—birds, trees, people—is “leaning” toward an upcoming spring. Not so with our own December 31, eh? Our New Year is smack in the middle of winter. Yes, it’s at least past the winter solstice by a week or so, but you’ve doubtless noticed that even though the days are longer after the solstice, they’re not very much longer, are they? As the planet swings slowly around its outermost point of orbit, it gains precious little daylight (in the northern hemisphere) for a good month or so before you begin to notice—hey! it really is lighter when I wake up, and stays lighter longer in the evening!

It’s just when you notice that daylight is really increasing that—bam! It’s the lunar new year. So you certainly feel a lot more like celebrating at the lunar new year. You can almost smell spring in the air. In fact, the lunar new year is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, towrd which we’re all leaning.

Beside the anchoring to natural phenomena and the proximity to spring, the lunar new year as the Chinese celebrate it has other things going for it. The Chinese devote the weeks before their new year to “clearing out” all the past year’s obligations and problems. Disputes are resolved or dropped. Bills are paid. The past, in other words, is consciously put to rest. This is a fine thing to do. Too often the past slows us down or casts a shadow on the present. Not so for those celebrating the Chinese way. You do what you can, and then leave all that baggage behind. What a bad idea, to start a new year weighed down with negative influences from the past year. Leave it behind!

And to start a new year, you want some serious celebration and festivities, to open up the new year on a positive and auspicious note. One night of drinking too much just doesn’t do that. So the Chinese make their new year celebration two weeks long, a combination of family and public activities. It begins with the new moon and ends with the succeeding full moon. Those weeks are filled with visits to friends and family, parades and parties, culminating in the Lantern Festival on the full moon night. Who wouldn’t feel good about the new year, with two weeks of celebrating to engage in?

So here at our home we’ve celebrated the Chinese lunar new year for several decades now. Some years we hang dozens of lanterns and decorations around the house (available online or at teacher supply stores), order lots of Chinese food, and invite a couple dozen friends over. The youngsters (and quite a few parents) draw and paint the “Kitchen God” and accompanying oriental scenes, which we tack to the wall behind our stove to bring us good luck the upcoming year. The old Kitchen God and his decorations from the last year I take to the back porch and let one of the kids strike a match and put the flame to the papers. Like Chinese around the world, we are sending the kitchen god in flames up to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on how our family has done the past year. Because we want only sweet words in that report, we put honey on the kitchen god’s mouth before we send him.

This about every other year. In between, particularly with our children away in college and their own lives, we put a smaller number of lanterns and decorations up and simply have a quiet celebration, Tammy and I. Of course we paint a new kitchen god and send the old one to the jade emperor in flames. It’s not as much fun, perhaps, as the big party, but it still makes us feel good, and we know we’ve started the “real” year well.
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