Tradition to guide Chinese New Year 

Starting Sunday, Chinese-Americans across The City will be engaged in a wide variety of traditional customs and practices — from eating spring rolls that look like "gold bars" to giving money in red envelopes to children and bags of tangerines to adults — in celebration of the Lunar New Year, the most significant event in Chinese culture.

All the customs, which take days of preparation, are meant to rid people of last year’s negative events and promote good fortune and prosperity in the year to come. The traditions also bring families together.

"It’s a huge thing to wish good luck at the beginning of the year," said Min Zhang, an administrator at the Chinese American International School in The City. "You want to get rid of the bad things. You clean your house thoroughly, and you wash things."

The Year of the Boar, the 12th zodiac sign in ancient Chinese astrology, begins Sunday, and celebrations will last 15 days. The Chinese New Year always begins with a new moon and ends when it’s full. The City’s Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade will be heldtoward the end of the celebrations this year, on March 3.

Traditional customs are sure to keep Chinese-Americans busy until then. Many practices require people to take various measures to ward off bad spirits or promote prosperity, such as lighting firecrackers and wearing the color red.

There are just as many "don’ts," however, as there are "do’s." Sweeping, crying, lending money and hair washing are prohibited on Chinese New Year’s day, as they are all believed to have negative affects on the upcoming year.

Chinese New Year is considered the most important holiday in the Chinese culture. In China, schools and businesses will shut down for at least a week. While that doesn’t happen here, the holiday is still treated as a major event.

"All the groups in Chinatown put something on," said Sabina Chen, executive director of the Chinese Culture Foundation, which supports the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. "It’s a touristy thing, but it’s also a way of gathering community. There are a lot people who don’t normally come into Chinatown who will be here. It’s going to be packed."

Celebration symbols take on special significance

(AP Photo/Pat Roque) Dragons symbolize strength, adventure, courage and prosperity.

Symbolism is prevalent during Chinese New Year celebrations. Traditional food, decorations and activities take on larger, more significant purposes and meanings. Tangerines and oranges, for example, are symbols of abundant happiness. For newlyweds, the same fruit with small leaves attached can mean children are on the way.

Here are some of the other important symbols during the celebrations:

Candy tray: Arranged in a circle or octagon, each piece of candy on the "Tray of Togetherness" represents a different kind of good fortune. A candied melon means growth and good health; a red melon seed, joy, happiness, truth and sincerity; a lychee nut, strong family relationships; a kumquat, prosperity or gold.

Doors and windows: At the stroke of midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve, all the doors and windows in a house are opened to let the old year out.

Dragons: The symbol of strength, adventure, courage and prosperity. The Chinese believe the dragon consists of many different animals. It has the eyes of a rabbit, the whiskers of a catfish, the body of a serpent and the paws of a tiger.

Chrysanthemum: An emblem of mid-autumn and symbol of joviality.

Bats: Five bats surrounding the Chinese character for longevity represent blessings of wealth, status, longevity, love of virtue and a natural death. Chinese lore says legendary silver bats are eaten for prosperity, with the blood, gall and wings used in certain medicines for the same reason.

Goldfish: Represents surplus and abundance. It’s tradition for families to serve a whole fish with Chinese New Year’s eve dinner. A portion of the fish is always reserved to represent abundance in the new year.

Firecrackers: Setting off firecrackers is meant to ward off evil spirits.

Get the latest news, features, and event calendars for the Year of the Boar (or the pig, if you prefer) at Examiner's exclusive San Francisco Chinese New Year page.

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