Thursday, February 7, 2008

Chinese New Year

When should the New Year start? Around here, school-age kids (and their parents) know that the new year starts in September, when school starts again. Even for those of us not tied to the school schedule, the crisp air lends a sense of energy that was missing during the heat of the summer and suddenly tasks that drifted all summer get done, phone calls get made, deadlines get resurrected.

But none of the traditional calendars start the new year in the fall. For agricultural communities in the northern hemisphere, the year logically starts with the spring equinox, when the earth comes back to life and a new growing year can begin; the old Christian year began in March. Coming close to this, the lunar year, the basis for the Chinese calendar, starts in late January or February; this year, it starts today. Then there is the western calendar, which starts the new year on January 1 - this makes no sense at all. December 21 would make some sense, when the sun starts rising in the sky again; so, for Christians, would Easter. But why January 1? That is about as arbitrary as it can be.

One thing that the Chinese and westerners agree on is that the new year, whenever it appears, should be celebrated with fireworks, friends, and feasts. To signify a new beginning, a break with the past, we make resolutions; they clean their houses, pay off debts, purchase new clothes, paint their doors and window panes, and even get new haircuts. School kids get new pencils and binders, even new clothes at the end of the summer - no wonder they think the new year starts in September!

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