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More Than Rabbits and Cats. Local Historian Highlights Winnipeg Celebrations and History of the Lunar New Year.

Photo by Paul Aurora

The New Year is a fantastic opportunity for reflection and camaraderie. Looking outside the west, there are even more celebrations after December 31. One of those Celebrations is the Lunar New Year. 

Now in the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Cat for Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people each year in numerous Asian countries. With a rich history and traditions, the Lunar New Year includes symbolic foods, gatherings, parades, the exchange of gifts, and the lion dance, taking place on January 22. Lasting for 15 days and ending in the  Lantern Festival, it’s an event to behold. For the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre (WCCCC), it was the first time they could celebrate the festival since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“Usually the week before, and sometimes the week after because there are so many events, many Chinese organizations will host a banquet. The banquet, which was hosted by the Chinese Development Corporation and WCCCC, was our first one since COVID. It was an entirely sold-out banquet of like 500 people,” says Tina Chen.  

Tina Chen is a Historian, Distinguished Professor, and Co-Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Research Circle on Globalization and Cosmopolitanism. 

“I don’t even know how many courses came, but at one point in the evening, my friend went, ‘how many more courses are coming?’ So It’s usually a really large meal, and many foods eaten at a banquet are symbolic.”

Symbolism is instilled into all aspects of the Lunar New Year. According to Chen, much that happens in Chinese culture is tied to the sounds of words. Although fish wasn’t among the courses at the January 22 banquet, traditionally, fish is eaten at these gatherings and are a homonym for “to have prosperity.” During the Lion Dance, a traditional dance in Chinese culture and other Asian countries in which performers mimic a lion’s movements in a lion costume, sometimes take lettuce, shred it up, and spit it back out. 

Chen says in Cantonese, the words lettuce or leafy greens sounds very similar to the word to become wealthy. Other practices in Chinese culture around bringing good fortune and prosperity include creating dumplings in the shape of gold coins, making sure your home is clean before so you don’t sweep away any of the good fortunes you ushered in during the new year, and elders presenting younger generations with red envelops containing money or other gifts. 

“All of these superstitions are all about getting rid of the bad luck, ushering in the good, and keeping it there,” says Chen. 

Another significant component of the Lunar New Year is the Zodiac, animals that represent a 12-year cycle. As the legend goes, the Jade Emperor wanted the 12 animals to be his guards, and the sooner they arrived, the higher their rank would be. This order is Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. In Vietnam, the Rabbit is replaced by the Cat, and the Buffalo replaces the Ox. 

Another association is the animal’s characteristics can influence the year they are in and the personalities of those born in that year. Chen says rabbits are often associated with being calm and docile, and Astrologers believe it will affect the coming year. 

“Many of the Astrologers are predicting, saying it will be a year of hope based on it becoming more calm, a little more reflective. Some are saying rabbits like to burrow, so you’re going to see people wanting to buy more houses. I don’t know. Maybe they haven’t seen mortgage rates when they put that out.”

However, it’s much deeper than just the 12 Zodiac animals. There is also a five-year cycle of metal, water, wood, fire, and earth, and a rotating cycle of Yin and Yang. So 2023 is the Yin Water Rabbit. 

“One of the things to remember, though, there is often a misconception if it’s your year, you’re a rabbit, 12, 24, 36, it’s going to be a good year for you. Actually, the year you’re born and when it comes to that year, they are not good years for you. So you have to be very careful.”

Celebrations like the Lunar New Year and the Chinatown Night Market hosted over the summer are ways to celebrate and invigorate interest in the area of downtown Winnipeg. Hosting these events also celebrates how diverse the centre has become, with various art galleries and businesses. Chen mentions it’s also a shared space with Indigenous communities, and the hope is to continue to build relationships and be the bridge for all communities.

– Ryan Funk, U Multicultural

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