Gong Xi Fa Cai, Guo Nian, Gung Hee Fat Choy, Xin Nian Kuai Le, Sun Nin Fy Lok, or however you wish to say it, Happy Chinese New Year! Although Gung Hee Fat Choy does not mean Happy New Year, it is an appropriate conveyance of good luck, happiness, longevity, and prosperity for the occasion.

The New Year is the most auspicious cultural event on the Chinese calendar. Unlike birthdays and holidays with specific dates on the western calendar, the Chinese New Year varies from year to year, corresponding to the phases of the moon. In 2012 it began on January 23, and in 2013 on February 10. In 2014, it will begin on January 31. Unlike the New Year on the western calendar which is celebrated for a single day, the Chinese New Year is celebrated over a period of 15 days. It begins with the Spring Festival, signaling the end of the winter season when the first new moon appears and it ends with the Lantern Festival. If respect is to be given to the host culture, it is wise to remember that the time the New Year begins is affixed to the actual observance of the new moon in Beijing, China, which will be at 5:29 a.m., January 31, 2014. The corresponding time in Hawaii when the new year begins is 11:29 a.m. on January 30, 2014.

In order to understand and better appreciate Chinese New Year, some knowledge of Chinese immigration over the years is invaluable. It is particularly appropriate and important for third and succeeding generations of those descended from Chinese immigrants, especially in Hawaii, if the culture is to be perpetuated.

People emigrate for different reasons — freedom, economic opportunity, fortune, and family, among others. Most of the first Chinese arrivals were attracted by opportunities to accumulate wealth as laborers on agricultural plantations and merchants in Hawaii and mining for gold and building railroads in the continental west. The largest wave emigrated from Zhongshan. These immigrants named places in their new lands in their native tongue in accordance with their view of them. For example, they referred to Hawaii as Tan Heong Shan, or Sandalwood Mountains, and the continental west as Gum Shan, or Gold Mountains.

Wherever they settled, Chinese immigrants practiced their traditions and customs and introduced them to others. Linkage with the mother country was extremely important because most had intended to return to China upon attaining prosperity. Many did in fact return to China, but many did not. In Hawaii, a number intermarried with native Hawaiian women and became citizens of the Kingdom of Hawaii. To this day, many of their descendents continue to honor their Chinese heritage by participating in celebrations for important events such as the Chinese New Year. Throughout the world where there are large concentrations of Chinese, residents of various cultural backgrounds actively participate in celebrating Chinese New Year, although they view the event as distinctly Chinese.

There are a number of accounts about the origin of the Chinese zodiac and Chinese New Year. A popular one about the zodiac tells of the Jade Emperor (the Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) who ordered that animals be brought to him from Earth. Only twelve animals arrived at the court by the appointed time, and the ox with the rat on its back playing the flute arrived at the court before the others. Impressed with the rat’s ingenuity, the Jade Emperor awarded it first place on the zodiac. He then assigned the other animals to positions on the zodiac in the order of their arrival. After the ox were the tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. At that time the rat and cat were good friends, agreeing to appear together before the Emperor. Since the cat was a late sleeper, the rat agreed to awaken it so that they could arrive early, together; however, the rat did not awaken the cat. By the time the cat arrived, it was too late for it to be included in the zodiac, and to this day there is no love lost between the rat and cat.

Another legend about the origin of the greeting “Guo Nian” (celebrate the new year) tells of the dragon-like beast Nian that preyed on the villagers and livestock at the end of the lunar year. For a long time, the villagers lived in fear. The Nian’s reign of terror came to an end when a Taoist monk challenged it to prey on other beasts of prey more powerful than the villagers who were unable to defend themselves. It was a challenge the powerful Nian could not resist. After vanquishing the other beasts of prey, the Nian was last seen flying off into the sunset with the monk on its back. With peace and safety restored, the villagers began celebrating the defeat of the Nian, which became an annual ritual at the beginning of the new year.

2014 is the Year of the Horse, the seventh animal of the zodiac. The Chinese belief is that the animal ruling the year of one’s birth hides in one’s heart and profoundly influences one’s life; hence, a person born in the Year of the Horse is said to inherit its traits. The Horse person is free-spirited and independent, energetic, strong minded, trustworthy, exuberant, extemporaneous, cheerful, romantic, sociable, and cunning. Others tend to confide in a Horse person because he or she is also sincere in thought and feeling. A study in contrasting character, however, the Horse person is proud yet sweet-natured, arrogant yet modest in love, envious but tolerant, conceited yet humble, and craves for social interaction while coveting individualism.

Chinese New Year is steeped in traditions and customs which the younger generations are unaware of or do not practice. Besides fireworks which are strictly regulated or prohibited in western communities, traditional cleaning on the last day of the lunar year as a way of sweeping away whatever bad luck there may in the house and to prepare it for receiving the good fortune the incoming year might bring is a custom that has all but vanished as part of the Chinese New Year observance.

One custom that has survived the test of time is the sharing of food. For a family banquet on the eve of the New Year, eight or nine courses are traditionally served because the numbers are considered lucky. The courses symbolize and represent health, wealth, luck, happiness, and long life. For example, shellfish such as lobster and crab represent the life and energy of the powerful dragon; chicken, prosperity; duck, joy and celebration; lettuce, money; oyster, good business; and fish, long life and good luck. Fish is traditionally served last, and is prepared with its head and tail intact to promote a favorable beginning and end for the new year. Some foods are red-hued because the color symbolizes life and happiness. The year-cake nian gao symbolizes the hope and dream that in the coming year one’s high hopes and aspirations will be realized. Its stickiness signifies cohesiveness of family; its roundness, family reunion; and its sugar, the sweetness of life.

The first and most important meal of the New Year consists of jai, a vegetarian dish also known as “monk’s food.” In addition to honoring the Buddhist tradition that no life be taken on the first day of the New Year, vegetables are thought to help purify and cleanse the body as abstinence from flesh is believed to enhance longevity. Hence, many Chinese today eat jai for at least the first meal of the New Year.

At the beginning of the Chinese New Year, it is customary for the young to pay respect to their parents, elders, and ancestors. In return, they are often rewarded by the honored with li see, appreciation money in a red envelop with gold trim or characters – red for happiness and gold for wealth. This custom and the partaking of special food dishes make for an enjoyable way to perpetuate the Chinese culture.

The Chinese New Year ends with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of celebration. It is said that the celebration derived from a time when the Jade Emperor, angered over the killing of a beautiful crane that descended from the Heaven, sought revenge on the villagers by arranging a firestorm on the 15th lunar day to destroy their village. Alerted to the plot by the emperor’s sympathetic daughter, the villagers hung red lanterns around every home, set bonfires, and lit fireworks on the 14th, 15th, and 16th days of the lunar year to give the appearance of a village on fire. On the 15th day when the troops sent to destroy the village saw the red lights, fires, and fireworks as they approached the village, they retreated and reported that the village was already being destroyed by fire. Satisfied, the Jade Emperor aborted his plan. Since then, the people have celebrated their reprieve from the Jade Emperor’s wrath with lanterns and fireworks. Today, lanterns are generously displayed and many of them carry messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity, and love.

In most places outside of China, the Lantern Festival has become almost a footnote. Many traditionalists have abandoned the time consuming practice and are now focusing on the pomp and festivities before and during the Spring Festival.

About the author: Douglas Tom is a recent state government retiree who has a deep interest in initiatives relating to problems, issues, and opportunities dealing with coastal and ocean resources and uses. He has collaborated with other coastal states in helping shape national initiatives and policies and has advised international governments in preparing plans for economic development while protecting and preserving cultural and environmental interests and values. He has also been a longtime advocate for visioning in government public policy.

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