Living in Boston has opened a lot of different cultural doors for me. A city rich with some of the best universities in the States and a rooted corporate culture, naturally attracts a lot of xpats from all over the world, contributing to the city’s deep ethnic mosaic. Recently I visited the Boston Chinatown with a couple of my Chinese friends, to celebrate their traditional Chinese new year, without having any idea of what will I end up experiencing. But the moment I stepped outside the China gate, I could hear gongs making music, firecrackers bursting on the streets, and lions dancing everywhere surrounded by a huge cheering crowd. Confused and excited like a little kid at the same time, my friend Season (Jie ji), helped me understand the significance and origin of this traditional holiday…
22nd Feb. 2016 was the Lantern Festival in Chinese tradition. Boston Chinatown, just one of many around the world, recently celebrated the festival in its most typical fashion – with a ‘lion dance’ parade.
The Lantern Festival is on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar, marking the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. And it is the first full moon of that lunisolar year. In the Western calendar, it usually falls in the month of February or March, each year. In modern China, it also means the end of the holiday season (which started on the lunar new year’s eve, Feb. 7th this year).
History and origin: The festival originated thousands of years ago, in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25). Many legends and fairy tales are related to its origin. The name came from the ancient Chinese language. In the Ancient Chinese, the first month of the lunar year is called the yuan month, and night is called xiao. Therefore, the day is called Yuan Xiao Festival in Chinese.
The typical Chinese Yuan Xiao Festival would be celebrated with numerous colorful lanterns hung out on the streets and over the balconies. At this point, people would solve the riddles written on lanterns, eat a dumpling-like snack named after the festival, yuanxiao.
Lion dance is one of the two main traditional dance performances in Chinese culture, mainly popular in Guangdong province and Hong Kong area. The early immigrants from there took the tradition to the United States, and made it a classic performance in Chinese American community. Two performers dressed in a lion costume, imitate a lion’s movements. Their faces are covered inside of the lion, with their legs representing the lion’s four legs. Usually the performance is risky and requires strong cooperation. Most of the performers have been trained since an early age and some basic martial arts skills would be taught for the performance. Another traditional dance is dragon dance which needs several people working together and holding the dragon costumes with poles.
This year, in the Boston Chinatown, the performers seem to have developed a new custom for the festival. Every household would give out lettuce and oranges, for the ‘lions’ to play with. This is something that people don’t do in China. My personal guess is that the lettuce stands for fortune and the orange stands for luck.
Interesting fact: Chinese use zodiac to mark years in a repeating twelve-year cycle and each year has an animal assigned as its symbol. The animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. This year is the year of monkey which stands for flexibility and smartness. People who were born in 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, and 1932 are said to be blessed with these characteristics.
About the Author: Jie Ji, is a journalism graduate student at the Boston University. Asking and writing is her way to interact with the world. She loves reading, traveling and finding beauty in life. All photographs are copyrighted to the photographer: Shraddha Gupta, Editor of StreetTrotter.