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COMPASS MAGAZINE, FEB. 2000. VOL. 7 ISSUE 2

The Year of the Rabbit

By Douglas Habecker

For most expatriates living in Taiwan, a wonderful bonus is being around to witness the fun, festivities and traditions that take place and are observed during the Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calender.

In addition to getting yet another major vacation so soon after Christmas and the New Year, foreigners have the opportunity to get caught up in a holiday spirit which is somewhat similar but yet so different from the western celebrations which precede by a month or two.

However, what exactly goes on at this time? Other than the requisite year-end company "wei ya" banquet, the giving of "red envelopes" and, of course, firecrackers, many outsiders are not familiar with some of the other traditions which have evolved over the milleniums of Chinese history.
Technically, the one-month Chinese New Year season lasts from the middle of the lunar 12th month of the previous year to the middle of the new year's first month. As any resident of the island knows from experience, this period is the local equivalent of the Christmas shopping and traveling season in North America, with no shortage of spending on gifts, new clothes, decorations and so on. Buying domestic or international transportation tickets during this time can also be a nightmare, due to the fact that everyone is going home to be with family or, during more recent years, traveling somewhere for vacation.

Prior to the holiday climax(the actual new year and following few days, it is traditional to get busy with a thorough house cleaning, which is also supposed to sweep away ill fortune and make way for better things.

Streetside vendors also sell the bright red paper banners(painted with couplets pertaining to happiness, wealth, longevity and similar themes(which are pasted around doors and windows. An offering to food to one's ancestors at the family "god shelf" isn't a bad idea, either.
The all-important new year's eve is celebrated with a dinner feast with one's family. There are several foods which are traditionally consumed at this time. Many of these have names with dual names or implications.

There's the "nien kao", or "year cake", made from sweet rice, which can also signify a higher ("kao"), or better, year. Fish is considered lucky and refers to the idea of leaving something over for the new year. The tiny "ji tzu" oranges are considered lucky, either as plants or consumed.
Boiled "chiao tzu" dumplings are also popular because the name can literally mean "sleep together and have sons".

After a big meal, there's nothing better than staying up late with one's relatives to watch TV, sing karaoke and play games including gambling over mahjong. Firecrackers are set off, both by playing children and businesses hoping to scare away evil spirits.

Early on new year's day, children will greet their parents and get their "red envelopes" stuffed with cash. Over the next several days, there will plenty of visiting and well-wishing and gift-giving between relatives, friends, acquaintances and neighbors. The standard greeting is "gung hsi fa tsai", meaning "congratulations and good fortune". Usually new year's day is spent with the husband's parents and family, followed the next day by a visit to the wife's side of the family. This helps explain the massive crush of traffic during these days, as people move around the island. Some superstitions observed at this time include, after the new year's banquet, not sweeping anything out of the house (which would sweep away luck). Any sweeping should be inward, not the opposite. Also, no trash is to be taken out on new year's day, no doubt giving sanitation engineers a much-needed day off. Break anything glass at this time and you should say "suei suei ping an", or "save the peace", to counteract bad luck.

Usually about the fourth of fifth day of the new year, shops and businesses will begin re-opening, causing another eruption of fireworks.

The Chinese New Year season officially closes 15 days into the new year, when Lantern Festival takes place. This charming, picturesque occasion is marked by lantern shows, folk performances and the consumption of "tang yuan", small balls of sweet rice containing sweet and spicy fillings, which boiled into a tasty treat. Children in particular enjoy this time and can be seen in the evenings with parents, parading with a variety of traditional and modern lanterns.

With a little knowledge of what is going on around you at this most special time of the year in Taiwan, you can increase your enjoyment of festivities to welcome the new lunar year. Best wishes for a very happy and prosperous Year of the Rabbit!

More on Chinese New Year: The Ancient Origins of Chinese New Year

English Language Chinese New Year's Cards: http://www.123greetings.com/events/chinese_new_year/happy/

 

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