The Year of the Monkey


Who says the New Year’s celebrations have to stop after January 1, or occur only once a year, for that matter? The Gregorian calendar, obviously. But for families whose cultures originate from East Asia, the Lunar calendar comes into play and provides them with not one, but two New Year’s Days.

The holiday, celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, is observed with traditional clothing, bright colors, food and performances. While the celebration in the streets might seem essential to the holiday, echoing with fireworks and drums which beat along with red and gold dancing lions, the core of most new year practices is actually the importance of familial union.

Many cultures practicing this tradition, such as the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, revolve their holiday practices around catching up with family. Math teacher Kim Dang celebrates every year with her Vietnamese family, and she emphasizes the importance of strengthening familial bonds during the New Year.

“The first day, you say good luck wishes and good words to your parents, or maybe your grandparents,” Dang says. “The second day, you visit relatives. The third day you would celebrate with friends.”

The sense of festivity is further excited by the promise of special foods eaten only in celebration of the New Year. Junior Isabel Wu, who is Chinese, says, “The one fruit you’d especially see during new years would be tangerines. Tangerines would always be like good luck. Other than that, you’d have moon cakes. You could have the meat ones, or the red bean ones, which were the sweet ones.”

Many times, these dishes take on further meaning. For example, the Vietnamese bánh chưng and bánh dày were supposedly presented to a king by his youngest and poorest son, who wished to succeed to the throne. The king had asked all of his eligible sons to bring him each a symbolic dish, from which he would choose his successor.

While the other princes all had countless riches to spend on elaborate and expensive dishes, the youngest son had none. With the help of Heaven, however, he creates a moon cake, bánh chưng, and a white cake, which he calls bánh dày. The moon cake, created in the square shape that early societies had come to believe the world existed in, represented the earth. The white cake, its complement, represents the sky.

“Then the king tastes it, thinks it’s the best food he’s ever had, and he gives the kingship to the youngest son,” says Dang.

What is most popularly known, however, is the story of the race of the animals to be included in the twelve-year calendar cycle. The order traditionally begins with the rat, who won the race, and is followed with the ox, the lion, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the chicken, the dog, and finally, the pig, who had been distracted and eating rather than participating in the race.

For those of you who like cats, you have the rat to blame for the cat being left out of the cycle. The rat and the cat, before the big race, had actually been close friends, and decided to enter the race and win together.

“But then they wanted to cross this river,” says Wu, “and the rat either couldn’t swim or didn’t want to swim, and the cat didn’t like water, so they talked to each other and they said okay, let’s ask the ox if we could ride on him. While they were riding across, when they were almost there, the rat pushed the cat off, jumped off and then raced him to the shore. And so he got first place, so that’s why he’s the first of the animal cycle.”

“When the cat finally got out of the water, he was too late, so he was booted out of the circle of animals, and then that’s also why the cat hates the rat.”

As this year is the year of the monkey, those born in the year of the monkey, or the years 1980, 1992 and 2004, will have especially good luck. While it may not be your year in particular, the future might bring more than luck for you– you can find a more specific fortune on p. 12 of this month’s paper! And of course, there’s nothing stopping you from joining in on the celebration and above all, spending time with family.