The fourth moon in the lunar year is the Snow Moon, though I sometimes think it should be called the Hunger Moon. There is not always snow, but there is hunger — in both belly and mind. At this time of year, many of us become restless, wanting to be more, do more. Luckily the Snow Moon and the season of Early Spring are traditional times to clean and cleanse. Get out those rubber gloves and give your home a good scrubbing. Start that exercise plan and get your health back. Donate and recycle all the stuff you haven’t used in the last year — excepting books and mementos of course.
The Wolf Moon is Dark on 11 February in 2021. The Snow Moon is New on the 12th. And with the New Snow Moon comes Chinese New Year.
The solar year, the time it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, is slightly more than 365 days long. The traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar — it incorporates the moon’s cycle into the solar year. A Chinese calendar month is 28 days long, about the length of time it takes for the moon to orbit the earth. A normal Chinese lunisolar year lasts from 353 to 355 days. And to keep the calendar in sync with the sun and the seasons, the Chinese add an extra leap month about one year out of three.
Most years, Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (December 21). The exact calculation of the New Year is a bit tiresome and we’re just going to leave it alone. So Chinese New Year usually occurs with the New Snow Moon. It is fixed to the period between 21 January and 21 February. This fixed window of time is one of the restrictions that make determining the date tiresome — there was a Board of Mathematics responsible for the calculations — but it keeps the lunar year from drifting away from the seasonal year.
New Year celebrations around the world are a time for prognostication. Hence Groundhog Day. In China there is a tradition of determining the tenor of the upcoming harvest from the number of days between the solstice and the lunar new year. If there are 50 days, food supplies will be sufficient. Every day under fifty is a deficit; every day over fifty is a surplus. The arithmetic usually works out to a gloomy prognosis because there are only 52 days between 21 December and 21 February, the latest date allowed to the New Year.
Chinese New Year is also called the Spring Festival, and the new lunar year is sometimes set to the new moon closest to the beginning of spring which is on or around 4 February in the Chinese seasonal calendar. This is obviously difficult, not least because the onset of spring varies. There is also the regular problem of early and late New Years when two new moons can be evenly spaced on either side of 4 February. So this method of determining the new year is seldom used though it gives the celebration its more common name in China.
The first month in the Chinese calendar is called the Holiday Moon, and there are ritual celebrations throughout the month. The Chinese New Year Festival itself lasts for the first fifteen days — from Dark Moon to Full. There are both religious and secular rituals. On the first day people welcome the gods of heaven and earth. There is no work done — or allowed — and no travel. Using sharp tools is considered inauspicious, so cooking is done the day before. Fireworks are lit in the evening, and in traditional communities wells are closed for the first two days of the year. The second day is for prayer to both gods and ancestors.The next two days are for men to pay respect to the fathers of their wives. On the fifth day, there is no travel; people welcome the god of wealth into their homes (coincidently tying into the Yuletide 5th Day gift of “five golden rings”… except there are no coincidences). The next week is given over to community and family gatherings as well as temple visits. The celebration culminates in the Lantern Festival with its colorful lights, dragon and lion dances and, of course, rice dumplings!
It is traditional to set out platters of oranges — the symbol of happiness — and candied fruit to start the new year sweetly. Wishes for health and good fortune are written on red scrolls and hung around the home. As this is a celebration of the awakening spring as well as the new year, flowers and floral decorations abound. When visiting others, it is customary to bring a bag of oranges or tangerines as a gift, and any candies eaten off the tray of happiness are replaced with red envelopes containing coins for children. These coins are incidental; it’s the envelope that is important. Red is the color of good fortune and abundance. The coins merely accentuate the symbolism.
The cycle of years in the Chinese system follows the cycle of the twelve Earthly Branches, each of which is associated with a sign of the zodiac and an animal that represents the branch. The years are thus named for this animal symbol, and those born in a given year are thought to have the characteristics of that animal. This is the year of the Ox, a symbol of dependability, strength, endurance and intelligence. In some southern countries the ox is replaced with the water buffalo, so this year is also the Buffalo Year. Make of that what you will.
A closing anecdote. Life in Northern California comes with many Chinese New Year festivals. These are colorful, vibrant, loud, exuberant and, most of all, time to eat delicious food that most of us don’t get every day. The street vendors sell bowls and skewers and platters of every variety of edible thing. Food is everywhere in steaming, aromatic piles. But be wary. Edible is a capricious word.
One year there was a delicious smelling food cart, selling sizzling strips of skewered meat drizzled with garlic and chile and spices. The Vietnamese woman behind the counter was almost a caricature of South Asian cheer. When asked what this delightful tidbit on the tongue might be, her eyes twinkled. “Is cat,” she replied. And all appetite for novelty evaporated.
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. 2003. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Montley, Patricia. In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth. 2000. Skinner House Books: Boston, Massachusetts.