Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Year of the Rat

Okay, I remember growing up and hearing Al Stewart’s ditty, “The Year of the Cat”, and the meaning of those words in the title eluding me for many years. As far as the Chinese go, there is no Year of the Cat. Although in Vietnamese cultures the Year of the Rabbit is replaced with Cat years. So what is the Year of the Rat? Thinking of rats puts me into the mindset of pesky vermin that spread disease and destroy food and possessions. But the rats in the Chinese culture are considered wealthy, hard-working, quick-witted charmers, and you may have one in your family or as a neighbor.

It is now the year 4706 in China, also known as the Year of the Rat. It is the first year of a cycle of twelve, each represented by an animal each with specific characteristics. When I was in high school, I became intrigued by the Chinese and other Asian cultures and their many rich traditions that have been handed down for millenniums. Over the years I have had students from China and nearby countries that have shared with me that the celebrations can be as diverse as the types of communities that each individual came from. Some families shared that they dress in elaborate costumes and basically all but celebration shuts down for weeks in the community. Other families shared that they would dress in their best red clothing on New Year’s Eve and have a feast with extended family members and give each child a gift of money in red envelopes, and then life would go on until two weeks later, where a parade and community festivities were the focus.

Today marks the Chinese New Year. In many parts of Asia today is the biggest, and for many the only, time of celebration. In fact today is the day many Asians celebrate their birthday regardless of when their actual birth anniversary falls. Families spend weeks preparing for and then weeks celebrating the annual event. The New Year is usually opened with a feast on the new moon, and 15 days later, a fireworks festival and dragon parade are held at the full moon. If we wrapped up our New Year’s, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day (honoring ancestors is a major part of the events) and every other family celebration we acknowledge into one, this would be he closest to understanding what a special time this is.

For fun, our family had dinner at Young Dragon, a local Chinese restaurant. It was quiet, and not busy as it is on Fridays, our normal night out. It is a bit unusual to have dinner out on a weeknight anyway. And dinners out have become more rare events with our schedules of no shared days off, so getting a chance to go to a place that is a family favorite was a nice treat. It was definitely a feast.

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