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Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Sunday, Jan. 29, 2006 12:01 AM

Today marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the Year 4703 of the Chinese (lunar) calendar. Chinese New Year occurs on the second new moon following the Winter Solstice.

This is the Year of the Dog, the 11th Sign in the Chinese Horoscope.

In Chinese tradition, New Year's is a time to set one's household in order - bills should be paid current, debts cleared, the house cleaned, and the larder filled. You should have adequate cash in your wallet, a full tank of gas, and clean clothes.

How one spends the first day of the new year sets the tone for the remainder; therefore, one is to avoid complaining, worrying, anger, and foul language. One should also avoid situations that render unfavorable omens; you would not gamble, because losing and loss might become the focus of your year. Children who enjoy videogames should refrain from those which focus on hurtful or negative actions, where the primary objective is killing others, or where you end up getting 'killed.'

Any cleaning must be done before the actual start of the New Year, though routine tasks such as washing the dishes and taking out the trash if it's collection night are acceptable. All cleaning implements (brooms, mops, vacuums, etc.) must be stored out of sight. One does not clean on New Year's Day so as to avoid 'sweeping out' the good luck that is resident in the home and family.

Though personal hygiene may be attended to, one does not wash their hair on the first of the New Year for the same reasons - to avoid washing away good fortune.

Lei si, or 'lucky money' -- red envelopes containing dollar bills (preferably crisp new ones) -- are given by parents, aunts and uncles to their children, nieces and nephews. This is a token of good fortune, a wish for prosperity in the coming year; children are encouraged to spend the money and not hoard it.

When I was growing up, one had to wish each relative Gung Hay Fat Choy before receiving lei si from them. Now, our family is large enough that it's sometimes difficult to keep track of who's who -- we have over 100 family members across four generations in the immediate area.

Public celebrations continue through to the full moon, two weeks hence. In San Francisco, this culminates with the Chinese New Year Parade and Miss Chinatown Pageant. Families often hold dinners or other get togethers at this time.

To learn more about Chinese traditions, I highly recommend Rosemary Gong's Good Luck LIfe. If you are interested in learning more about Chinese Astrology, Theodora Lau's Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes is extremely detailed. (A less technical and slightly more whimsical book was Suzanne White's Chinese Chance, which appears to be out of print.)

The traditional greeting of Gung Hay Fat Choy is a wish for prosperity and good luck, not a literal translation of 'Happy New Year.'

The literal expression, 'Happy New Year,' is San Nin Faai Lok in Cantonese.

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