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Dragon rules in coming New Year

Date Posted: 2012-01-19

The dragon becomes king Sunday as the new lunar year begins.

The centuries-old celebration features old calendar traditions that are both common and popular in Okinawa, where fishermen will celebrate in their ports with special flags adorning their boats in hopes of a big catch. Across the prefecture islands, the sense of hustle and bustle will be evident as people scurry about buying ingredients for the New Year’s feast. Nowhere are the three-day festivities more in evidence than Itoman City.

In 2012, the Dragon is welcomed back after the 2011 year of the Rabbit. January 23rd is the first of 15 days of Chinese New Year's celebration, and also the start of the Year of the Dragon. In Chinese culture, the dragon is the only animal of the Chinese zodiac year that is not real. Legend says that it is made up of different parts of animals such as a tiger, fish, snake and an eagle. Thus, the dragon is always seen as a powerful almighty king. Chinese people associate the dragon with power, superiority and wisdom - rather a threatening evil in Western culture. Moreover, the Han Chinese call themselves the descendants of the Dragon.

Before becoming a prefecture of Japan, Okinawa celebrated the New Year based on the ancient Chinese lunar calendar. The lunar year has 12 months, each 29 or 30 days long. The lunar month begins with the new moon, and the full moon always falls on the 15th. To keep this calendar in line with the solar calendar, an extra month must be added every 30 months. All traditional festivals in China, including the Chinese New Year, take place according to the lunar calendar. . Some cities in Okinawa still celebrate the New Year based on the lunar calendar. Itoman, for example, hosts a large celebration every February (lunar New Year). Because Itoman was once a Chinese import seaport, the traditional lunar celebration is still carried out.

Also introduced to Japan by China, are the twelve symbols of the zodiac. After the system was introduced to Japan, the Japanese used animal names to denote the twelve positions of Jupiter. They are the rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar.

Lunar new year traditions vary from country to country across Asia, but in most, it is the biggest holiday of the year. In neighboring Korea, the Je-sok, or New Year Eve, is the night of the last day of the twelfth month, at a time when the moon is nearly hidden. Koreans break out the starched and ironed white holiday clothing, while children are adorned in bright, colorful costumes. Everyone’s up early for the lunar new year, with women heading to kitchens while men gather in order of family seniority to join in ceremonies, pouring wine, and preparing for the feast.

The men make the rounds of friends and relatives after the meal, welcoming the new year. The women stay home. In the evening, torches are lit throughout the house to keep the evil spirits away. There are also ceremonies honoring ancestors, where tea and sake are placed in front of the ancestral tables.

China is similar, with family gathering on the New Year Eve to exchange gifts and eat. New Year Day is dedicated to both feasting and visiting relatives. On the second and third holiday days, everyone visits friends and acquaintances.

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