Happy New Year! Happy Lunar New Year, that is, aka when the new year begins in the lunisolar calendar. In China, the lunisolar calendar is followed and the new year is called the Spring Festival, where winter ends and spring begins. In America, it is often referred to as Chinese New Year, which this year lands on Feb. 12.
During the New Year festivities, which last a whopping 15 days, the celebration is marked by family dinners, red banners, fireworks and sometimes a dancing lion. Red symbolizes luck, fireworks keep bad spirits away -- but what are the dancing lions for?
It all starts with a monster by the name of Nian.
According to legend, there was a people-eating monster in China named Nian Shou who would awaken from his wintertime slumber at the bottom of the ocean and emerge on the last day of the lunar year looking for a tasty bite. He would raid the nearby village each year, forcing everyone who lived there to flee...everyone except for one old lady. She stayed in her house and took in a traveler from a nearby village. In return for her generosity, the traveler shared his Nian-repelling tricks with her, including firecrackers and red paper. These things scared Nian and drove him back to the ocean. When her village returned home, the woman told them her newfound tricks. Each year thereafter, the villagers wore red and made a ton of noise, including lighting firecrackers, and Nian never came back.
"Nian" in Chinese means "year," and "Shou" means "monster," so it translates to "Year Monster."
To honor this legend and bring luck to the new year, a traditional lion dance is performed at New Year's celebrations. A costume is worn with two dancers inside, one as the head and one as the body, who dance to a rhythmic beat of noisy percussion instruments like drums and cymbals. The southern version of the dance is an extremely athletic dance that requires strength and agility.
The lion will roam the streets, visiting businesses and homes. Sometimes, a “Laughing Buddha” character will antagonize the lion to make him angry. As part of the dance, the lion will leap, prance and kowtow.
Lettuce leaves are left for the lion with packets of red money inside, and when the lion “eats” the lettuce, he scoops up the red packet and scatters the lettuce around to leave a little “luck” behind.
Firecrackers are lit to chase the lion away while he moves on to the next stop, and the routine begins again. A new year has begun, and it will be lucky because evil was chased away.
Lion dancing is such hard work that it’s not just for New Year’s celebrations anymore. Lion dances are now performed at weddings and have become competitive events. It gives dancers a way to show off their talents and work on their skills in anticipation of New Year events.
If you happen to be caught in the middle of a lion dance celebration, just know it will be good luck for you, in more ways than one!