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Ushering in The Year of the Serpent

By Lillian C. Jen

Giant golden characters emblazoned on red banners stretched across the streets of Chinatowns throughout the country last Friday as Chinese-Americans saw in 4675, the year of the Serpent, with feasting, fireworks and parades. The celebrations, with touches of American, may not have been quite like the one in Peking. As one might expect to find in China this week, the streets were piled high with the wrappers of exploded firecrackers, but in the United States less-than-traditional ash cans and cherry bombs also littered the pavement, while Adidas stripes flushed under many a dancing dragon.

In Boston, the New Year's festivities did not even take place on New Year's Day. Lacking the 15-day holiday traditional in China, Friday's celebration was postponed to Sunday, which was more convenient to the Boston celebrants. And then, to add a true Beantown note to the day, wet New England snow blanketed the proceedings.

They went on, however, with greater "authenticity" than in many parts of China itself, where the dragon dance tradition died more than 50 years ago along with many other old Buddhist superstitions. According to traditional beliefs, the dragon dance and firecrackers were employed as a defense against evil spirits which lurk in the streets during the holidays. The living are joined by the ghosts of their dead ancestors for the New Year's meal at home, but because some ancestral ghosts are evil and lazy they might be tempted to stop at someone else's home for dinner instead of going to their own. Once there, they might stay the rest of the year as well, bringing very bad luck. To avoid this, the Chinese believed it necessary either to abstain from cooking in order not to attract them into their homes with the smells of a good meal, a strategy obviously not in the interests of the living, or else to scare them away with firecrackers and dragons. But as the fear of these evil spirits declined in china, so did the impulse to ward them off, producing the paradoxical situation of many Chinese immigrants seeing a dragon dance for the first time when they came to the United States.

Other old traditions, such as fireworks and "required" foods, have survived not only in America, but also in china. In the old tradition, a family sent its kitchen god to heaven to report on the family's behavior during the last week of the old year. Upon his return on New Year's Eve the family welcomed him back with a big dinner. This dinner, as one might expect, continues as one of the strongest surviving traditions. The menu includes a variety of foods with symbolic import (e.g., noodles are eaten for long life). Although the list of such foods is lengthy, fulfilling the requirements is generally not considered a hardship.

Required eating continues the next morning, when children wake to find chestnuts under their pillows. Because the Chinese word for "chestnuts" sounds similar to the word for "fame," eating the nuts is believed to bring a noteworthy career. The children also receive a plate containing oranges to keep the family together, cake to bring them happiness, and candy to bring them a sweet life. Parents also give their children money in red envelopes, which they are allowed to gamble or spend as they like on New Year's Day.

Gambling reflects the mood of the day. Having settled all debts the night before, people feel ready to find out what the year will bring. Children jump as high as they can behind the kitchen door in the hopes that they will grow as much as possible during the coming year, and adults wish each other prosperity countless times. No one makes resolutions in the Western fashion, however, since the future is viewed as determined more by fortune than by the individual.

New Year's Day is a good time to ponder one's fortune, since it is not only the first day of the New Year, but also one's birthday according to tradition. A person is considered one year old at birth, becoming two years old on the following New Year's Day. Thus a baby born on New Year's Eve is two years old in the Chinese system although he may only be a day old in the Western system of reckoning.

In figuring one's horoscope, the year of one's birth, rather than the day, is important. The year in which one is born is one of a cycle of twelve years, each of which is assigned an animal name according to the order in which various animals came to the Buddha for blessing in the beginning of time. The serpent was the sixth animal to come, making this year the sixth year of the cycle. One's personal characteristics are determined by which animal sign one is born under.

Chinese New Year in Boston is as good an occasion to look to one's future as it is in Peking, if not better. One Chinese-American reflected last weekend that he had perhaps more to think about; he looked back to a New Year's Day thirty years ago, when he would never have dreamed that his fortunes would bring him to the United States, much less that he would spend the rest of his life here. And he looked ahead wondering if the year ahead would bring anything so momentous again.

If you were born in January or early February, you should count your astrological year as the year before you were born because the lunar calendar does not coincide exactly with the Western solar calendar. For example, if you were born in January, 1956, your sign is the ram, not the monkey.

Serpent[those born in 1953, 1965, 1977]- You have more than your share of the world's gifts, including basic wisdom. You are likely to be a handsome, well-formed man or a graceful beautiful woman.

Horse [1954, 1966]--Your cheerful disposition and flattering ways make you very popular with your friends. Great mental agility will keep you in the upper income bracket.

Ram [1955, 1967]--You are a sensitive, refined, aesthetic type with considerable talent in all the arts. Your success or failure will depend upon whether you can shepherdall your ability and energy into a single field.

Monkey [1956, 1968]--You like to live the good life. You have a flair for decision making and finance.

Rooster [1957, 1969]--You either score heavily or lay a large egg. Although outgoing, you are basically a loner who does not trust most people. However, you are capable of attracting close and loyal friends.

Dog [1958, 1970]--You are loyal and honest with a deep sense of duty and justice. You can always be trusted to guard the secrets of others.

Boar [1959, 1971]--The quiet inner strength of you character is reflected by your courtesy and breeding. Your driving ambition will lead you to success.

Rat [1960, 1972]--You have been blessed with great personal charm, a taste for the better things in life, and considerable self control.

Ox [1961, 1973]--You have a calm, patient nature. Friends turn to you because you are a good listener. Love bewilders you because people wrongly consider you cold.

Tiger [1950, 1962, 1974]--You are a person of great extremes. A sympathetic and considerate friend. A powerful and dangerous enemy. In your career you are both a deep thinker and a careful planner.

Hare [1951, 1963, 1975]--You are blessed with extraordinary good fortune and will inevitably attain success.

Dragon [1952, 1964, 1976]--Your fiery reputation is based on an outward show of stubbornness and short temper, but underneath you are really gentle, sensitive and softhearted.

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