Happy Lunar New Year! 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, so I thought I’d share a few facts and scattered memories about some New Year traditions. Read on for some trivia about the Chinese zodiac, a quirky family story about birthdays, a recipe for New Year Cake and a fantastic book you may have never heard of.
I grew up with just very cursory knowledge of the Chinese Zodiac and the lunar calendar. I was used to the idea that everyone in the family (including extended family) sort of knew what “animal” everyone else was. But since my family wasn’t really superstitious, that’s about the extent of it. Oh, and I also knew that those Zodiac placemats you see in Chinese restaurants weren’t entirely accurate — if you were born in January (or even February) chances are the Lunar New Year hadn’t happened yet and you actually belong to the previous cohort.
Later on I learned the cycle of the Zodiac, which is much easier to remember in Chinese (one syllable per animal) than in English. Furthermore, if you know the cycle and the current year, you can pretty much guess somebody’s age from their Zodiac sign (as long as you’re not off by 12 years). For instance, if you’re a Rabbit, then this year you will be 12, 24, 36, 48, and so on. As long as I’m not completely off, I can guess your age, give or take a few months. If you tell me you’re a Dragon, then I know your year is next year, so you’re going to be some multiple of 12 minus 1. It’s much more useful than the Ptolemaic Zodiac, which will only tell you the month, roughly, of somebody’s birth — and is subject to revision anyway.
I won’t explain all the details of how the lunar calendar works—there are plenty of much more in-depth resources than I could provide here—but the calendar is based on the phases of the moon (and as this handy Wikipedia entry notes, also takes the sun into account). This explains why the lunar new year doesn’t always fall on the same date as the Julian new year. The Chinese calendar has been around for several thousand years, and is still used widely in many Asian countries—although they also use the Julian calendar in conjunction.
My personal experience with the lunar calendar, though, pertains to my parents’ birthdays. They grew up using the lunar calendar and knew their lunar birthdates—but that meant their Julian calendar birthday changed from year to year. I grew up having to consult them about when their birthdays were every year. (And since I didn’t really understand how the calendar worked, I used to wonder whether my parents were actually the age they said they were.) Finally, at some point, they just decided on a date for each of them—whatever their birthday happened to be that year would just count as their birthday each year so we could all agree on an unchanging date.
It wasn’t until years later that I found a lunar calendar program for my Palm that helped me easily switch between lunar and solar, and even look up a specific date on either calendar and have it translated. I looked up my parents’ real birthdays on the Julian calendar, and discovered that my daughter shares a birthday with my dad. This was when she was two years old. It seems very bizarre to me that my dad’s first grandchild would be born on his birthday and nobody knew until two years later.
Now, for some traditions!
You may not be aware, but the Chinese are incredibly fond of puns. (Perhaps our Managing Editor Matt Blum is really part Chinese?) A lot of superstitions center around homophones — and because of the way Chinese works, there are a lot of them. Some traditional dishes eaten at the New Year include fish (which sounds like “wealth”), oranges (sounds like “luck”) and the New Year Cake nian gao (sounds like “a more prosperous year”). In the non-pun category there’s also noodles, which represent longevity, and dumplings which are shaped like gold ingots.
I haven’t always carried over all of these traditions (and we certainly don’t have the 15-day festival here in western Kansas) but the one thing I do try to do if I’m able is make some nian gao. Last year I even sent some with my daughter as a school snack for the kids to try. It’s made with glutinous rice flour and is a very dense, sticky substance—sometimes it’s called New Year Pudding instead—and not everyone enjoys it. But if you’d like to give it a shot, here’s the recipe I got from my mom:
Ingredients: 1 lb. package of glutinous rice flour (糯米粉), 1.5 to 2 cups sugar, 3 eggs, 3 cups milk, 1 stick butter, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1. Soften butter, blend with sugar.
2. Add all other ingredients, blend until smooth.
3. Bake in a 9″x13″ greased and floured pan at 350° for 1 hour.
Optionally, you can add a few dollops of sweet red bean paste in the batter before baking, or sprinkle some sesame seeds on the cake halfway through baking.
The glutinous rice flour will probably be the only ingredient you don’t normally have sitting in your pantry. If you’re lucky enough to live near an Asian market you can probably pick it up there—otherwise you may need to order some online. The photo here is what mine usually looks like when I buy it.
One last thing: as promised, here’s a book that you may have never heard of. I picked up The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon years ago at a library book sale. It was published in 1964 (notably, there is no ISBN because they weren’t in use yet) and apparently was purchased for the library either that year or shortly after, based on the stamps inside. The last time it was checked out was in 1991, and then it was withdrawn from the library at some point and I purchased it several years later.
Of course the title and the cover illustration caught my eye, as did the date in which the events take place: 1999, close to the time I purchased the book. (And, if you’ve been following along, you’ll know that 1999 was indeed the Year of the Rabbit.) It’s a sci-fi political satire: Australia, in working to deal with a rabbit infestation, creates a super-myxomatosis which then becomes a superweapon, granting Australia world supremacy. Absolutely everyone has to do whatever Australia wants.
The Australian Prime Minister ushers in an era of world peace, banishes all nuclear scientists and deals with any troublesome people by having them certified and put into the asylum. Oh, and Richard Nixon is president, after seven unsuccessful attempts. The best part of the book is just the way that one particular Australian viewed the world (particularly America) and the way he works in some really funny ideas about how to run the world properly.
The other great thing about The Year of the Angry Rabbit is that it inspired (but really is nothing like) the movie “Night of the Lepus,” in which giant man-eating bunnies take over the U.S. It’s also funny, but not intentionally so, and makes use of bunnies, fake blood and tiny sets to make the rabbits look huge. The movie has since cropped up in various places, including “The Matrix” (in the scene at the Oracle’s apartment).
Sadly, though this is a fantastic book and I wish everyone could read it this year, you may just have to take my word for it. The four copies currently on Amazon are quite expensive and I don’t know that the book is worth that much.
Well, have a wonderful Lunar New Year and think rabbity thoughts.
Note: if you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I had a brain fart yesterday and forgot how to read a calendar, but I’ve gotten that straightened out now.