Another new year is on its way

Chinese New Year starts Sunday. Although we're not Chinese, my family celebrates the holiday, so I have so much to do to get ready - so many different things to take into consideration. For starters, I'm supposed to have all debts paid and get a haircut.

Other things (such as being kind to dogs) are easily accomplished: You can ask my German shepherd, I'm a nice lady most of the time.

But what about not using the Chinese word for "four," which is a homonym for "death"? Or letting your kids get away with things they can't at other times of the year? Those are part of the holiday, too.

Things were much easier when I was a kid. I fell in love with everything Chinese when my teacher Mrs. Goldy read to us about the Dragon Boat Festival. That took place in June and sparked a new interest by the local boys in boating and canoeing along the winding rivers of Saskatchewan.

The New Year celebration, though, was something different. In late January or early February, which is close to my birthday, Jimmy, who ran a restaurant in a nearby town, would drop by our house with little red envelopes that contained shiny coins for me. I always thought it was because of my birthday, but later I learned that the greeting Gung Hei Fat Choy was a way to say "Happy New Year," not "Best wishes on being 9."

I started following the Chinese New Year seriously several years ago. Let's face it, the Jan. 1 New Year celebration seems to get lost in the Christmas bustle - too much turkey and too little time. The only resolution I would make and keep was not to make any resolutions so close to Christmastime.

Chinese New Year offered a breather. My home then was in Victoria, British Columbia, which boasts the oldest Chinatown in Canada. A few weeks before the holiday, you could sense a change in the air: Red banners hung from shops, and tangerine plants were placed in windows. Because the celebration was colorful and full of wonderful rituals, it didn't take long for us to be caught up in the swing of things.

We learned that even before the holiday begins, there's a day to get your hair cut, as sharp objects are to be put away on New Year's Day, so as not to "cut away" good fortune in the coming year.

On the eve of the 15-day celebration, Chinese families gather and send prayers to Tso Kwan, a kitchen god who reports on whether you have been good or not.

The kitchen is, of course, a place of gossip and a source of sage advice. Since much of family life is centered around the kitchen, it's no small wonder that Tso Kwan is supposed to know so much!

The first day of the new year is spent visiting, initially with relatives and then later with friends, and eating vegetarian food with both. The food and family part is easy for us, since my daughters love to cook as much as I do. And they bring their husbands, who love to eat as much as my husband does.

By the third day, you are supposed to not argue, for if you do, you supposedly will argue all year. It is called "squabble day," although when my kids were younger, they used to call it "count to 10 day."

On the fourth day, the kitchen god comes back, and it's hoped you have cleaned up the kitchen, put up a new calendar, and thrown out your furry food from the fridge.

There is a day called "sweeping the grounds." It's set aside for an annual housecleaning.

A day on which "everyone" has a birthday is called, appropriately, "everyone's birthday." This happens on the seventh day of the festival, but sometimes we cheat and move it up, especially if work and school are calling my family back to the city. We bake a cake and frost it with red icing, using traditional motifs. According to tradition, we are then all a year older, but I feel young in my heart, especially when the first snowdrops bloom.

I look around the table with its red and gold tablecloth, and I wonder how things will change when I become a grandmother. We will honor the children, and maybe they will get away with a little more than they should. I know I will spoil them with little red packets of shiny coins or crisp bills every New Year. We will hang lanterns and welcome friends who drop by to try our latest cooking endeavors.

But now I must prepare. I need to wander around Chinatown in search of the ultimate Peking duck, a new pair of satin slippers, and, of course, those red envelopes. I will remember to be kind to dogs and to try to settle all my debts. I will get my hair cut before the new year begins and, if not, wait two weeks before I do.

HappyChinese New Year, everyone! Enjoy the Year of the Dog. Best wishes from the long-haired lady who was born in the Year of the Tiger.

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