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The Chinese New Year, Explained

I'm a Pig. Well, that's what my parents told me. You see, because I was born in the Chinese Zodiac's twelfth year -- the Year of the Pig -- I'm classified as a Pig. In fact, I automatically inherit certain qualities which are attributed to all Pigs: honesty, tolerance and a peaceful, patient happiness. And while Pigs are known to be intelligent and wise, we also can be shy and a bit gullible.

The Chinese Zodiac is just one of the many colorful traditions tied to the Chinese New Year. Having been raised in a Chinese family, I've gotten a firsthand understanding of the world's biggest celebration. Here's the inside scoop:

TIMING:

Chinese New Year isn't a day; it's a 15-day marathon of family gatherings, rituals and celebrations. It takes place in the middle of winter, usually around late January through mid-February. The timing is tied to the lunar cycle. Why didn't the Chinese align with the first-of-January timing used in the Western calendar? Simple: The Chinese were first. Their timing existed about 2,500 years before January 1st was established in the West. Interestingly, several key elements of the Chinese calendar can be seen in the Hebrew calendar.

TRADITIONS:

For thousands of years, the Chinese have perfected the art of "ringing in the new:"

  • Clean the house before the new year. Every closet, every window, every speck of dust. This sweeps away bad luck.
  • At midnight, open the windows and doors, allowing last year's spirits to leave.
  • Decorate in red; this frightens legendary beasts.
  • Also decorate in gold; this symbolizes good fortune.
  • Eat long noodles -- these represent longevity.

CELEBRATIONS:

Yes, it's a very festive period:

  • Feast with family members, being sure to remember ancestors, in-laws and even dogs.
  • Farmers should display their best crops.
  • Enjoy new year music, played on traditional instruments.
  • Wear festive red and gold.
  • Enjoy bright lights, firecrackers and an exciting time together.

SUPERSTITIONS:

  • Don't sweep your house on New Year's Day -- hopefully, you did this yesterday!
  • Paint the doorways red.
  • And don't drop your chopsticks, wash your hair or borrow money.

THE ZODIAC:

We've all seen those red paper placemats in many Chinese restaurants, featuring the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac. The signs are represented by well-known animals, which, according to legend, were selected in a race across China. During each New Year celebration, a new animal is honored. Here are the personality traits commonly associated with each animal:

  • Rat: Quick, slick, witty, charming, very sharp. Can be stubborn and calculating.
  • Ox: A powerful, dependable leader. Loyal, logical and systematic.
  • Tiger: A natural air of royal authority. Powerful, confident, mysterious.
  • Rabbit: Sociable diplomats, timid and intellectual.
  • Dragon: Excitable, energetic, even explosive. Powerful and wealthy.
  • Snake: Fascinating, attractive, intriguing, even enchanting. Secretive and possessive.
  • Horse: Independent, confident, likes to roam. Can flash a temper.
  • Sheep: Stylish, creative, an innovative thinker. Loves attention.
  • Monkey: As mischievous as their namesake. Clever and inventive.
  • Rooster: Flashy, flamboyant, full of style and attitude. Very confident.
  • Dog: Faithful, trustworthy, a good listener. Sometimes stubborn.
  • Pig: As noted above, we pigs are honest, tolerant and happy.

OUTLOOK:

Because it will be the Year of the Tiger, we can expect 2010 to be a year of tenacious goal-setting and goal-making; however, these goals might be inconsistent and rash.

Have a Happy New Year of the Ox!