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Island welcomes lunar New Year in traditional style

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2007-02-19

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

Old calendar traditions are both common and popular in Okinawa, where fishermen will put out to sea with special flags adorning their boats in hopes of a big catch. Across the prefecture’s islands, the sense of hustle and bustle will be evident as people scurry about buying ingredients for the New Year’s feast.

It is the Year of the Pig, which according to the Chinese calendar runs through next February 6th, when the rat becomes ruler. This year was a dog year, a time when the symbolic “home” was built. Now, under auspices of the pig, that home is “furnished” into a warm, comfortable, cozy abode. A pig-year them is cleaning up the loose ends from the year of the dog, making amends on issues, setting new goals and even saying farewells. The pig is the final sign in the zodiac, representing birth years 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995 and 2007.

Life in the year of the pig is often characterized as “a year in the fast lane” with hustle and bustle being the norm. Still, pigs care much about friends and family, and make great companions because of tendencies to see the bright side of everything. They can, at the same time, easily be irritated if ignored or messed over by business colleagues, friends or lovers. They’re smart, always studying, playing and yearning for more knowledge. Their honesty is a virtue, and often are curt with those whose ethics are not equal to their own.

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 year’s biggest holiday. In neighboring Korea, the Je-sok, or New year’s 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’s eve to exchange gifts and eat. New Year’s Day is dedicated to both feasting and visiting relatives. On the second and third holiday days, everyone visits friends and acquaintances.

Taiwan’s version of the lunar new year runs longer, starting earlier and running two weeks after new year’s itself. Taiwanese have a Feast of Lanterns this year on March 5th. By Taiwanese tradition, household deities must leave the earth and go to heaven to file reports on the earthly folks, and the sending begins with sacrifices to guarantee peace and good fortunes in the coming year. Paper money is burned, fire crackers are lit off, and feasts are held with rice pudding offered as a gift to friends and relatives.

Tet is the Vietnamese New Year, and follows the basic pattern of other countries. Ceremonies begin the afternoon of lunar new year’s eve, with sacrifices offered to ancestors, together with an invitation to return to earth for a brief period. Midnight launches Gao Thua, a sacrificial ceremony for ancestors, after which families offer new plant buds as a sign of good fortune for the new year.

Vietnamese celebrations go on for days, and sometimes for a week. On the other hand, Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is quick and fancy. It’s the biggest holiday of the year in Bhutan, with special dances performed with Buddhist monks and specially trained dancers wearing intricate masks.

Ladakhis celebrate over a five-day period in Tibet, starting on the second to last day of the old year. Men’s good and evil deeds are measured during the period, with a time of repentance for since and prayers for better behavior in the new year are offered.

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