The actual Chinese New Year isn’t until February 10, but while we’re still a few days away, there is definitely a holiday buzz in the air. It sort of feels like Christmas is coming again. Decorations are up everywhere. Lots of gold and yellow fish and red and gold ball lantern looking things are hanging in shops, malls, building lobbies and on balconies all over the city. They also decorate what look like cherry blossom trees with little red envelopes and the red ball lantern things. The red envelopes are called “hongbao” and like the moon cakes of Autumn/Moon Festival fame, are probably the items most associated with CNY (that’s how the locals refer to it). You put money in it but not an amount that has a 4 in it. The red is good luck and supposed to scare away evil spirits and the 4 is bad – very bad. So bad, in fact that there is no fourth floor in our building (or any in China). Six and 8 are good. Cash amounts made up of 6 and 8 are very good. Also like the autumn/moon festival, CNY is also known as the Spring Festival (which sounds lovely in February, 2 points Shanghai).
It’s the year of the snake but I haven’t seen too many snakes on display. (I’ve decided this is because the animal changes every year so you’re not going to invest in decorations that you have to re-purchase every year but I have no idea if this is really why. But you wouldn’t invest in a bunch of blow up reindeer if Santa flew in with different animals every year so…I must be right.) Instead, it seems, they put the snake on all sorts of products – shoes, jewelry, notebooks, coffee mugs.
“Snakes?” you might be thinking, on my coffee mug? Ew.” But these aren’t ugly, slimy looking reptiles, they are majestic, bad-ass looking snakes. As you sip your morning brew, they’ll make you think you can conquer your day with the grace, speed and agility of a superhero. Plus, buying items with the snake on them will bring you luck. Western capitalism meets Eastern superstition.
I say the Chinese are superstitious but maybe that’s not quite fair. American buildings don’t have 13th floors. And, at the heart of it, can’t all belief systems really be considered superstition by those who don’t believe? Some of you believe that a priest in 2013, can say a few words over a wafer and wine and turn that into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, now dead for 2000+ years, and by ingesting this you are absolved of your sins? I’m just saying, this could seem superstitious to some.
The Chinese New Year has 12 cycles: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig. And from what I’ve learned so far, the coming year means the most to those born during that year or during previous snake years. (If you thought being a snake baby was bad, imagine the rats!) Much like Western astrology, there are strengths and weakness associated with each animal and various predictions about wealth, love, career, etc.
Having said that, there are some characteristics about each animal that apply to the general population. For example, the snake “carries the meanings of malevolence, cattiness and mystery, as well as acumen, divination and the ability to distinguish herbs.” The ability to distinguish herbs – now that’s a useful life skill. “Some people believe that a snake found in their court can bring delight. During Spring Festival, people like to paste onto their doors and windows the paper-cut ‘Fu’ character (happiness), combined with a snake twisting around a rabbit onto their doors and windows as a popular pattern indicating wealth.” (http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/zodiac/snake.htm)
A more newsy source, the South China Morning Posts, paints a less appealing picture of the coming year of the snake. According to the astrological predictions of a Hong Kong brokerage, the coming year won’t be so bad for the stock market. (I’m not making this up). The article goes on to explain that the Asia-Pacific markets get an annual report called the “feng shui” index. “The report is based on the signs of the Chinese zodiac and features lighthearted predictions for financial markets, property and celebrities.” (http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1145084/year-snake-promises-calmer-hk-market)
Less encouraging however, is the fact that major world disasters – 9/11, fall of Berlin Wall (ok, not a disaster), Tiananamen Square, and the stock market crash in 1929 – all happened during snake years. But more encouraging, this year is a water snake year (as opposed to an earth snake, fire snake or air snake), it seems the best of the four snakes.
We’re not quite sure what to expect of Chinese New Year but I’ve heard, the Chinese treat it like an actual holiday. Everything shuts down for multiple days. While this will likely be somewhat inconvenient, there is something admirable about the fact that everyone can celebrate the occasion…until we run out of something really important. Like wine or chocolate.