February already! Over a month into 2018, is it time to stop wishing people a happy new year even if I haven’t seen or spoken to them yet this year? Or maybe I should start wishing people a Happy Chinese New Year which begins on February 16th this year. Chinese counting of years follows a twelve year cycle each represented by an animal – rat, cow (or ox), tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, chicken (or rooster), dog and pig. To further differentiate years ( and enable counting of days and months within a year) five colours white, black, green red and brown – and five ‘elements’ – metal, water, wood , fire and earth – are added. 2018 then becomes not just the year of the dog but the year of the brown earth dog. Those born in the year of the dog are said to be honest, friendly, faithful, loyal and smart, with a strong sense of responsibility.
This year Yan Tan (Chinese New Year) coincides with the beginning of Lent. For the Chinese there is a time of preparation before the New Year celebrations when families are busy giving their homes a thorough cleaning so that any ‘bad luck’ is swept away and the house is ready for good luck to enter but on new year’s eve all brooms and dust pans are put away so that good luck cannot be swept away. The home is decorated with red paper designs and phrases spelling out good wishes for the coming year and children receive gifts of money in lucky red envelopes.
In common with almost all celebrations food plays a big part in the proceedings and on New Year’s Eve a special family feast called ‘surrounding the stove’ or ‘weilu’ symbolises family unity and honours the past and present generations. Lights in the home are kept on for the whole night and of course no Chinese celebration is complete without fireworks as at midnight the sky is lit up by them as the old year is sent out and the New Year welcomed in, Above all though, Chinese New Year is a time for reconciliation, old grudges are forgiven, people are warm and friendly towards one another, gifts are given and received, families come together and it is a time of reunion and thanksgiving.
It must be a bit confusing for Chinese Christians. At first glance our Christian season of Lent which begins on February 14th seems a world away from these exuberant Chinese celebrations. It is a time of abstinence or even fasting, of reflection, introspection and self-examination rather than extrovert merry-making. And yet there are things that are common to both. On the eve of Lent we celebrate Shrove Tuesday when people prepare themselves for the fast, in the past and still in some Christian traditions, by going to confession to be spiritually prepared. (It is also for some a time for spring cleaning the house). And, of course, it is accompanied by a feast or carnival to use up the last of the rich foods such as meat and eggs, known in many places as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, celebrating with parades, dancing and dressing up in elaborate costumes, better known to is in this country as Pancake Day.
And both Lent and Yuan Tan are times to make a new start it is a time of wiping the slate clean and beginning afresh. So if you didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, or they didn’t last very long and you want to start again, now is the time to do it. In the second letter to the Corinthians, St Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation; the old has gone the new had come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). So as we celebrate let us not lose sight of the new opportunities that lie before us.
Gung hei faat choi (wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year)