Rat rings in the new

 

AS OF today, the Year of the Boar is but a memory and the arrival of the Rat is being marked with colourful pomp and joyful circumstance in Chinatowns around the world. The festival of Yuan Tan, the Chinese New Year, begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice. This constrains it to fall somewhere between January 21st and February 19th on our Gregorian Calendar, and because the winter solstice and a new moon coincided on December 22nd, 1995, Yuan Tan 1996 is just about as late as it can be.

The ancient Imperial calendar was abandoned for official purposes with the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1911 but its traditions have remained alive in Chinese communities around the world. Instead of using western numerals, each year is popularly known by one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac which, like the signs of the more familiar zodiac we associate with horoscopes, rotate in a fixed order.

The cycle of the years begins with the Year of the Rat, followed by the years of the Ox, the Tiger, the Hare, the Dragon and the Serpent. The second half of the duodecade begins with the Year of the Horse, and after the Monkey, the Cock, the Dog and the Boar, the Year of the Rat comes around again once more. Since each of these names was used only once every 12 years, they provided in days gone by a ready reference to the recent past for the illiterate or for those disinclined to master the numerical complexity of other systems.

The celebrations at Yuan Tan, like our own New Year, have as their theme the sweeping away of any ill luck associated with the year just gone and mark a time when everyone can look forward to a fresh start in the days to come. It is, in fact a day of double celebration, especially for the children, since it is also everybody's birthday: the ancient Chinese reckoned age from New Year's Day, a little like we do in the case of motor cars and horses. A child was regarded as being one year old at birth, and became two at the following New Year, so it was not uncommon for an infant to become two years old a few hours after it was born.

As preparations are made for the family feast on the day before Yuan Tan, all the doors and windows of the house are sealed with paper strips to prevent the intrusion of any evil spirits. No one is allowed to leave or enter until the seals are broken on the following morning just before dawn. Then it is the custom for friends to greet, each other with Kung-hsi fa-ts'ai a blessing you may wish to bestow upon your next door neighbour should you meet this morning: "Happy greetings, and may you gather wealth."