By Greg Hugh, Staff Writer

Unlike most western civilizations, the Chinese New Year is determined by the traditional lunar calendar that is based on the cycles of the moon. In fact, in other countries that celebrate Chinese New Year, it is usually translated as the "Lunar" New Year. In any case, the Chinese New Year celebrates what the traditional calendar labels as the beginning of spring. Chinese New Year usually falls during the first week or two of February, although it can occur as early as late January as it does this year on Monday, January 23, 2012. This is the first day of 15 days of celebration and the start of the Year of the Dragon.

 

In Chinese tradition, each year is dedicated to a specific animal. The Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig, Rat, Ox, Tiger and Rabbit are the twelve animals that are part of this tradition. In 2012, the Dragon is welcomed back after the 2011 year of the Rabbit. Each of these animals is thought to bestow their characteristics to the people born in their year.

While the Year of the Rabbit was characterized by calm and tranquility, the Year of the Dragon will be marked by excitement, unpredictability, exhilaration and intensity. The Rabbit imbues people with a sense of cautious optimism, but people respond to the spirit of the Dragon with energy, vitality and unbridled enthusiasm, often throwing all caution to the wind – which can be an unwise move: The Dragon is all about drama but if you take unnecessary risks, you may find yourself starring in your own personal tragedy.

People born under the Dragon are passionate, brave and self-assured. At their best they are pioneering spirits; at their worst, they epitomize the old adage: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Dragons are generous with their resources, a tendency that at its most negative can reflect a foolhardy attitude towards money. But Dragons, in general, are blessed with good fortune. They are smart, enterprising and have a wicked sense of humor. They have a natural flair for fashion and are the people to consult if you want to catch up on the latest trends.

This Chinese New Year 2012 ushers in the Water Dragon. Water exerts a calming influence on the Dragon's innate fire. Water Dragons are more open to other people's opinions than other Dragons which give them the ability to channel their personal charisma into real leadership qualities.

Dragons are passionate. They fall in love quickly – and out of love just as quickly. Their charisma and charm is an immense draw to people of the opposite sex whose attention and admiration they crave. Though they have a tendency to treat love like a game, they can settle down when they meet the right partner, someone who's strong enough not to be bowled over by the Dragon's flamboyant, independent and stubborn personality.

The Dragon's ideal partners are the Rat, the Monkey, and the Rooster: The Rat is practical, observant and resourceful, able to help the Dragon when extravagant promises have backed the Dragon into a corner. The Monkey is just as popular as the Dragon, curious, intellectual and fun-loving, one of the few personalities the Dragon doesn't mind sharing the spotlight with. The Rooster can give the Dragon a run for the money on the fashion-forward front; attractive, well-groomed, fiercely loyal and committed to honesty, the Rooster serves as the Dragon's reality check, keeping the Dragon from making promises that he or she can't keep.

Dragon years are lucky for anyone thinking of starting a business or initiating a new project of any sort because money is easier to come by for everyone, whether it's earned, borrowed or received as a gift. Consequently we can expect the economic downturn to ease up a bit in the coming year. Fortunes can be made but they can also be lost: Keep in mind like all good things, the Year of the Dragon will come to an end and you will be held accountable.

Famous celebrities born in under the Dragon include John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Al Pacino, Marlene Dietrich and Matt Dillon. The Dragon's lucky color is yellow.

In addition to all of this folklore about the individual animals that make up the Chinese Zodiac, there are many traditions and symbols associated with Chinese New Year. Following are a handful of the most popular practices.

Prior to the first day of the New Year it is customary for families to thoroughly clean their homes from top to bottom. Doing this is said to clear out any back luck from the previous year and to ready the house to accept good luck for the coming year. All cleaning must be finished before New Year's Day so there is no chance of accidentally throwing out the good fortune of the New Year. "Before New Year's Day you want to buy new clothes or cut your hair" in order to have a fresh start. Wearing black is not allowed due to its association with death, however, wearing red is encouraged as the color is associated with warding off bad spirits.

Another popular custom is to hang up signs and posters on doors and windows with the Chinese word fu written on them, which translates to luck and happiness. Buying flowers for the home is also commonplace since they symbolize the coming of spring and a new beginning. In Chinese neighborhoods, special lunar New Year flower markets often sprout up during the days prior to the New Year.

On the eve of the Chinese New Year it is customary to visit with relatives and partake in a large dinner where a number of specific foods are served. Typically families do eight or nine dishes because they are lucky numbers. The Chinese word for eight is baat [in Cantonese], which rhymes with faat, the word for prosperity." The word for nine means "long-lasting."

A lot of the foods are very symbolic. Some popular foods include: dumplings ("because they look like golden nuggets"), oranges ("because they are perfectly round, symbolizing completeness and wholeness"), and long noodles ("served to symbolize long life").

Sticky rice cakes and sweets are also served and are tied to a story about the Kitchen God-- a Santa Claus-like figure who reports to the Jade Emperor in heaven on whether families have been good or bad through the course of the year. According to legend, when families serve the Kitchen God sticky, delicious foods, his mouth gets stuck together and therefore he cannot report any bad things about the family to the Jade Emperor.

As the countdown to the Year of the Dragon continues, the biggest human migration takes place when Chinese all around the world return home on Chinese New Year eve to have a traditional gathering dinner with their family.

You are cordially invited to celebrate the Chinese New Year by attending any of the many celebrations being hosted by many organizations throughout the Twin Cities area as noted throughout the newspaper.

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