STEPHANY ZOO: Why the Chinese celebrate New Year in February

PARTY TIME: Chinese-New-Year lion dance
PARTY TIME: Chinese-New-Year lion dance

When you’re watching the fireworks go off at the stroke of midnight on December 31 to celebrate the New Year, did you know you are actually participating in a Chinese tradition? The Chinese invented gunpowder and thereby fireworks almost 1,500 years ago.

They use firecrackers and fireworks to attract the money gods and repel bad spirits. It was so easy to get fireworks in Shanghai, which used to be a war zone around Chinese New Year. I remember the fallout hitting the bay window of my 18th floor apartment, but there are have been too many fires and accidents so the government has cracked down.

Since the Chinese were also an agricultural community, they based their calendar on the moon to help with forecasting seasons and farming. Today, the government typically uses the Gregorian calendar like the rest of the world, except for deciding holidays such as the Chinese New Year.

The calendar is basically changed to fit the seasons of the year based on how the earth moves around the sun. Because of this, the Chinese New Year is not on January 1, and instead moves around between January 21 and February 20. This year it will be on February 5.

Chinese New Year can be likened to Christmas in Christian countries — everyone goes back to their village, everyone eats a lot, and spends time with their families. As red is the color of celebration and luck in China, everyone will wear red clothes and put red decorations up to welcome the New Year.

Instead of the constellation-based horoscopes, such as Gemini and Sagittarius, the Chinese have their own astrology. The Chinese zodiac comprises of 12 animals, and the order is explained by a charming folktale about all the animals competing in a race to become the Jade Emperor’s 12 guards. There’s even an explanation about why cats eat mice, and why dogs hate cats. 2018 was the year of the Dog, and this coming year will be the year of the Pig.

Of course, just like the Western zodiac, the Chinese associate different personality traits and aspects to each animal and the kind of people born that year. The zodiac cycles every 12 years, so you can easily calculate someone’s age based on what their zodiac animal is. Contrary to popular belief, your ben ming nian, or the year that had the same zodiac as that of your birth year is actually very unlucky. If you are 24, 36, 48 or another multiple of 12 this year, you should go to the temple and get a lucky red bracelet blessed.

If you’re wondering why all the China towns in Nairobi look like ghost towns towards the end of January, it is because everyone has gone to their villages (in China) to celebrate the New Year!

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