February 7, 2020

Down come the decorations and back with the bland, unadorned furniture. Relatives have packed their bags and sing promises of return. Lights are taken down from rooftops and stored away — not to be seen until another year has elapsed. Welcome, 2020. Aside from the dreaded finals, the students of Berkeley High School (BHS) can now relax until the next widely celebrated holiday: Valentine’s Day. But halt, on the other side of the globe, people are preparing for something quite like what we have just packed up. This year, China celebrated its New Year on January 25, welcoming the Year of the Rat. You might know of this holiday as the Chinese or — as it is so sensibly named — Lunar New Year. For thousands of years, it has been the tradition for China to rejoice under the second new moon after the winter solstice. This day marks the beginning of the traditional Chinese calendar.

Customarily, this day has been designated as a day to honor Chinese ancestors and deities. Nowadays, families get together and share their traditions. Relatives come from all corners of the world. Firecrackers and fireworks are set off all night long, and stories are retold over steaming dumplings.

One of the commonly recited stories is that of Nian: a sea-dwelling beast that emerged from the waters on the darkest night of the year to torment the nearby village. He would invade the villagers’ homes and eat little children. The poor villagers felt helpless against the daunting creature. It was all they could do to flee to the hills and not return.

One day, a wise man named Yanhuang happened upon them and asked why they were so scared. When the villagers told him of Nian, he grew enraged and swore to them that he would do away with the monster. Though somewhat skeptical, the villagers agreed to let Yanhuang carry out his plan. At nightfall, Yanhuang put up red papers throughout the village. He lit firecrackers and banged as many gongs as one man could manage. The loud noise and bright colors frightened Nian away, and the beast was not seen or heard from again. In the following years, the villagers no longer feared the new year. Instead, they celebrated their luck by wearing red and setting off firecrackers. Hence today’s tradition of wearing red clothes, stringing red lanterns from buildings, and gifting money encased in red envelopes to family members and loved ones on Lunar New Year was created.

Each Lunar New Year has a specific animal to represent it. There are twelve: the monkey, rooster, ox, tiger, rabbit, snake, dragon, pig, dog, horse, goat, and rat. The story goes that long ago, the jade emperor of China called all animals to a huge race. The first twelve animals to reach his palace would each get a year held in its honor. The first to reach the finish line was the rat, getting the first year of the zodiac calendar named after him, and all the praise that comes with winning a race. And so, the tradition of celebrating the Year of the Rat continues to this day.

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