The Year of the Horse

With lion dances, fireworks and displays of martial arts, residents of Boston's Chinatown ushered in the Year of the Horse in a traditional New Year's celebration last Sunday.

The festivities, delayed a week by the blizzard, aimed at exorcising evil spirits from the area and ensuring happiness and prosperity for the coming year.

The main events were the lion dances. Members of local martial arts clubs, trained in the special movements of the dance, donned colorful costumes and performed at each storefront. Yon G. Lee, director of the Chinese Cultural Center in Brighton, explains that the lion symbolizes a good spirit, capable of clearing the air of evil, and the dance itself represent youth and vitality, transmitting energy to all who watch it.

At each shop, the storekeepers make an offering to the lion, usually some sort of food and a red envelope filled with money. Lee says an orange seals the lion's lips with sweetness so that the shopkeeper will say and receive sweet words during the coming year. Tangerines are often gifts, since the Chinese word for tangerine rhymes with the word for luck. And lettuce enters into the ceremony because, in Chinese tradition, green is the color of longevity.

Store owners arrange their offerings in various patterns to specify how and for how long the lion is to dance. Lee says the more complicated the pattern of oranges, tangerines and lettuce that the owner displays, the longer the lion is supposed to dance. A gift set up on a table or chair symbolizes that the lion has to cross a bridge and demands a dance exhibiting greater skills than are ordinarily required.

There is an important economic reason for the dance, Lee explains. The longer and more expertly the lion dances in front of a store, the more people gather to watch and the more publicity the store receives. The red envelopes filled with money are the shopkeepers' gifts for the performance--the amount is generally proportional to the length of the dance.

Probably the most memorable part of a Chinese New Year's celebration is the deafening noise from constantly exploding strings of firecrackers that accompany the lion. Combined with the drums and cymbals of the martial arts music, the noise of the fireworks drives away evil spirits. Also, the firecrackers have a red and green paper wrapping--the red for happiness and the green for longevity. They spread little bits of these virtues throughout the streets when they explode.