Houston Community News >> Celebrate the Year of the Pig

2/13/2007-- As the second new moon arrives, the Chinese get ready to welcome a new year.

Chinese New Year is one of the biggest holidays in Chinese Culture, and its celebration has become more popular as the Chinese population around the world has grown in recent years.

On the last day of class at the Huaxia Edison Chinese School last week, the Chinese New Year was very much on the minds of the more than 600 children, teachers and parents.

"Since this year is the Year of the Dog, can anyone tell me what animal is the next sign for the Chinese New Year?" asked one of the teachers to a dozen or so rambunctious 5-year-olds.

The teacher received all kinds of answers - elephant, tiger, cat - and then finally she said no, this year is the Year of the Pig, which the children described as pink with a big tummy.

On Feb. 18, 2007, which corresponds with the Chinese year 4705, the Chinese will celebrate the Year of the Pig, which is roughly equivalent to the western sign of Scorpio. The pig, or sometimes called the boar, is described as an honest, straightforward and patient person, who tends to have excellent manners, make and keep friends, work very hard, and appreciate luxury.

The pig is one of the 12 animals on a 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Some famous people born in the Year of the Pig include former First Lady and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recently announced her bid to run for president of the United States for 2008, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, writer/director Woody Allen, and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Chinese calendar goes by the lunisolar - a combination of the lunar and solar - calendar, which scholars have proclaimed the oldest surviving calendar system in the world. The first legendary ruler developed it in the third millennium B.C. Each month follows one cycle of the moon, which takes 60 years, and is made up of five simple cycles of 12 years.

During the 60-year calendar cycle, each of the animal signs is combined with the five main elements: metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The entire universe is composed of these elements. The Chinese New Year starts with the new moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon, which is the 15th day, called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade. The first cycle of the zodiac was introduced in 2637 B.C.

The Chinese New Year is celebrated at the second new moon after the winter solstice, which falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20 on the Gregorian calendar.

There are different stories or myths about how the 12 animals came to be the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. The 12 animals in order are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

Lan Jiang's class yelled out the different versions - both in Mandarin and English - they had heard.

One popular version is that the Jade Emperor (of Heaven) decided to call for a race on the emperor's birthday, which would have only 12 winners. In order to win and gain a permanent place on the Zodiac calendar, the animals had to cross a swift-current river and reach the designated spot on the shore. The cat and the rat, who were friends at first, decided to ride the ox to get across the river because they knew they were poor swimmers. The ox, being naive, agreed to carry the two across the river. When they had reached the middle of the river, the rat decided that in order to win the race, it must do something, and so the rat pushed the cat into the river, which caused animosity between the rat and cat. After the ox crossed the river, the rat jumped ahead and won first place in the race.

Another version is that the rat was given the task of inviting the animals to report to the emperor's banquet to be selected for the zodiac signs. The cat was a good friend of the rat, but the rat tricked him into believing the banquet was the next day. The cat slept through the banquet, thinking that it was the next day. When he found out, the cat vowed to be the rat's natural enemy for ages to come.

Another popular version is that Buddha, founder of Buddhism, who was a prince from India at the time, called every animal to come bid farewell to one of the five elements of earth. Only 12 came, and Buddha named a year after each one.

Some of the students at the school wore festive red clothing traditionally worn on the new year. Red is worn throughout the new year because it is believed that red will scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. Also, people tend to wear new clothing to symbolize the start of the new year.

Jiang told her class that someone who is born in the Year of the Pig has to specifically wear a red belt and underwear. This factoid made her class of preteens laugh.

The 15th day of the new year is called the Lantern Festival

"About 1200 years ago, the Lantern Festival was a bigger holiday than Chinese New Year," said Jiang. "It was a day that everyone, even the women and girls, could come out of their houses and have fun. The emperor also would step out of the palace and let the commoners see him."

Eight-year-old Michelle Qiou added that sometimes her family puts lanterns in the doorway, but she did not know why.

"It's to ward off bad spirits," answered 9-year-old Sam Zhou.

"The way people celebrate depends on each individual family," said Jiang. "People who come from overseas have lost some of that connection, since there are no days off from work and school for the new year and some don't have time to celebrate at home. But the Chinese community and here at the Chinese School we try to keep some of the culture and heritage. During the weekends among those 15 days of the new year, around the Edison area, it is packed with activities."

Vice Principal Dr. Gang Tong described the celebration of the Chinese New Year as being similar to the Western holiday of Thanksgiving.

"All the family comes together and we eat," he said.

Eleven-year-old Grace Zhao said her family cooks fish (usually eaten on the eve of the Chinese New Year), rice, vegetables and dumplings (which are eaten, traditionally, because the preparation is similar to packaging luck inside the dumpling). All foods that are eaten are meant to usher wealth, happiness and good fortune.

"Everything you have on the dining room table must be as a whole," said Jiang. "If it is a duck, it has to be a whole duck, it can't be cut up. This means fulfillment, happiness and unity."

Pistachios are becoming more popular, because if you sound out part of the Chinese word for pistachio, it means happy heart, she said. Watermelon seeds and lotus seeds are also eaten, and oranges, especially tangerines, represent happiness, wealth and peace, she added.

Tong said there is a myth that the fish, which is a rich dish, should not be flipped around, which may go against tradition.

"Not too many follow the tradition here, but it may still be followed by the fisherman," he said.

Not all of the food is eaten completely, to leave surpluses every year.

Jiang said in China, families stay awake overnight on the eve of the Chinese New Year to keep away the Nian, which legend says was a furious monster that fed on human beings. It was born to be very ugly and ferocious. On the first and the 15th day of each lunar month, the monster would come down from the mountains to hunt people. An old wise man in the village gathered the people together to conquer the monster by beating drums and gongs, burning bamboo, and lighting fireworks.

The fireworks live on to this day as part of the new year celebration; however, because of safety reasons, fireworks have been banned in Hong Kong.

The celebrations usually leave a mess on the floor with all the decorations, especially when it rains, but sweeping the floor is considered bad luck because it will sweep away the good fortune and luck for the new year.

Other superstitions considered bad luck include buying a pair of shoes or a pair of pants, getting a haircut, talking about death, and buying books.

On the other hand, eating candy; opening windows and doors; and switching on the lights for the night are considered good luck.

Red envelopes, which include money, are passed out during the Chinese New Year from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors or from parents to children.

(Contributed by The Sentenal)