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Chinese New Year Is Everyone's New Year

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A lion dance troupe parades through L.A.''s Chinatown as part of the Chinese New Year celebration.
Photo: Elson Trinidad

Happy New Year, everyone.

Even though we're already some 40 days into 2014, and we've already flipped the calendar to the second month, it's definitely time to ring in the new year again -- Chinese New Year, that is.

Also known as the Lunar New Year due to coinciding with the new moon, it's intended to mark the coming of the spring season in China, an important time when Chinese society was primarily agrarian, establishing a tradition that has been established for several centuries. It's also celebrated in other Asian countries (namely Vietnam, where it's known as Tet), and observed all over the Chinese diaspora in communities worldwide.

And since Chinese New Year lasts not one day but two weeks, we're still in the midst of the holiday, ending with the Lantern Festival on February 14 (plus, local Chinese New Year festivities last well into late February).

Being how multicultural Southern California is, we can probably consider Chinese New Year to be everyone's New Year as well.

No, I'm not talking about crassly appropriating a centuries-old tradition practiced annually by families in China and across their diaspora, and we certainly shouldn't deem it as yet another drinking holiday a la St. Patrick's Day or Cinco de Mayo -- we have Super Bowl Sunday to fulfill that role this time of year anyway.

But think of Chinese New Year an extension of our Western New Year: Because of its closer chronological proximity to January 1 of the Gregorian Calendar than, say Persian Nowruz, or Jewish Rosh Hashanah, or Hindu Indian Diwali, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch. While Western New Year has its own traditions and customs, namely keeping resolutions to better oneself, the second New Year celebration can also serve as a reminder for those of you who already started lapsing on your gym visits, or craving those cigarettes you swore you'd quit. If you were serious about keeping your resolutions, then not making good on them doesn't necessarily constitute failure; it just means you have to work harder. This extended New Year's celebration can help us realize that.

For many in the Chinese community, the Lunar New Year is a time for family and friends, as many of the holiday customs revolve around events and interactions with loved ones present. Though many of us have already accomplished that towards the end during the multiple-holiday season at the end of the Western calendar, we can have such large social circles and family trees that we might not have had the time to accommodate everyone. So why not observe the Chinese New Year as a way to spend time with the people you didn't get a chance to see?

The tradition of handing out red envelopes (lai see in Cantonese; hong bao in Mandarin) is a prominent part of the Chinese New Year tradition, with red being a good-luck color (which in Chinese folklore was the color feared most by the beast known as Nian, which came to villages to eat the people -- the traditional lion dance performances during New Year celebrations are meant to portray the beast). Though some businesses like stores and casinos co-opt Chinese New Year customs by giving away red envelopes as prizes for the holiday, they're largely meant in tradition to be given by married couples to children.

For Westerners, yet another gift-giving holiday might be a bit too much, especially for those of us still paying off our credit card bills rung up during the Christmas season, but something should be said for inter-generational interaction. Especially in this era where the digital divide can also segregate by age. It's easy for older people to diss -- and dismiss -- the young according to their traits, language, musical tastes, as well as their dependence on technology. The strength of societies depend on the ability of their generations to communicate with and learn from one another. So consider giving a symbolic "red envelope" in the form of story sharing and quality time.

Prosperity is a large theme during Chinese New Year, with its most well-known phrase, "Gung Hei Fat Choy" (Cantonese) / "Gong Xi Fai Cai" (Mandarin) consisting of a greeting which means "Congratulations and be prosperous." What started out as success and abundance in agricultural crops has evolved into financial prosperity in the modern world. In this age and economy, with the realities of living in debt and the rising costs of living, we need all the luck and encouragement we can get. The Spanish-speaking world already grasps this in their Western New Year greeting of "Prospero Año Nuevo." Everyone should have a chance to prosper.

Though this is the start of the year 2565 in the Chinese calendar, tradition places more significance of the animal year than the numerical one. The 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac might not mean too much for those of us who weren't raised in Chinese culture and traditions, but identifying with our animal friends in some way can't be a bad thing, if it helps us learn more about their behavior and treat them more kindly.

The other weekend, I joined thousands of other Angelenos in Los Angeles' Chinatown district, for this year's New Year celebration, which included the traditional Golden Dragon Parade earlier in the day, followed by a daylong outdoor festival in the Central Plaza that included live music, acrobatic performances, and youth-oriented arts and crafts activities. I was there for no other reason than to immerse myself in the celebratory atmosphere. Red lanterns hung in front of businesses and in plazas. The sound of metal percussion rhythms and firecracker blasts accompanied the flowing moves of lion dance troupes.

It didn't take long to realize I wasn't the only one who basked in the celebratory atmosphere (and supported the local economy). It was satisfying to see age-old customs and traditions played out before my eyes. It was energizing to be immersed in the revelry, with everyone having a good time. Maybe those firecrackers, or those ubiquitous-but-messy confetti cannons, really did scare off those evil spirits. Though I have to go back several generations into my family tree to find someone from China, I did feel like it was my New Year, too. And it also felt like everybody else's.

Be it 2565 or 2014, we should all hope the best for this year, for ourselves and for each other. So in this Year of the Horse, be steadfast and strong. Congratulations and be prosperous. Happy New Year -- again.

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