Though the pandemic has forced the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center to hold its celebrations online, there is still a cartful of ways you can welcome in the Year of the Ox.

Ox Tales

Each year on the Chinese zodiac calendar is represented with a designated animal. The calendar repeats in a 12-year cycle, rotating in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. This year marks the Year of the Ox, and a person born under this sign is said to have qualities that include diligence, persistence and honesty.

On Feb. 12, the “Rat” scampers off. In the traditional Chinese calendar — based upon the lunar calendar — each year is associated with a different animal, and 2020 was the Year of the Rat. According to an ancient folktale, the Jade Emperor held a party for the animal kingdom, and the order of arrival would determine the 12-year calendar cycle. Ox was in the lead, but Rat (apparently, unable to figure out his Uber app), rode in on Ox’s back, and then jumped down at the last moment, scurrying into the party first.

No matter what position Ox arrived, I think we’re all glad to see the tail end of the Rat for a while, and kick last year out the door!

The good news is that the Chinese New Year kicks off Feb. 12, and lasts until Feb. 27, giving each of us plenty of time to celebrate in a variety of ways. An official celebration (sometimes referred to as the Spring Festival) also will occur as a public holiday in China from Feb. 11 to Feb. 17.

Celebrations of Chinese New Year date back some 3,000 years, and have evolved and changed over time. The festival traditionally includes symbolically ushering out the old year and welcoming luck and prosperity for the new.

The day before the New Year, a family reunion dinner is held, featuring a variety of foods that have specific meanings and purposes. Fireworks, which the Chinese are credited with creating during the Song Dynasty, are set off on New Year’s Eve to ward off evil and bad luck.

The color red, which represents good luck and prosperity, plays a big role in the celebrations, especially in decorations in homes, businesses, and along streets. But this distinctive shade also appears in customs such as “hong bao,” red envelopes of money given to kids and single adults who are jobless. A sign of modern times, these envelopes are now sometimes sent electronically via phone app (Alibaba, WeChat, et al.).

The 15th day of the New Year is the Festival of Lanterns. Bright red paper or cloth lanterns (often with gold accents) are on display everywhere.

During the two weeks of festivities, special dances are performed, with the clanging of cymbals and beating of drums announcing them. One of the most popular is the lion dance, which is performed by two concealed dancers. The movements are controlled from within the lion’s head and tail, and the performers mimic a lion’s movements. The costume is intricately designed with moveable eyes and mouth, which opens to demand food and red envelopes from audience members.

Another festival highlight is the dragon dance. Around 5,000 B.C., the dragon became the official crest of the Chinese emperor, as he was believed to be descended from these mythological creatures. Today, the dragon is still revered as a symbol of good fortune.

The dragon dance is performed using what amounts to a huge, segmented puppet (80-110 feet in length) operated by a skilled group of 9-15 people. The movements are controlled with long poles held by the dancers, who are visible during the performance. Dragon dancers may perform tricks or acrobatic feats such as having performers stand on each other’s shoulders to make the creature taller.

By the way, the record for the longest dragon used in this traditional dance — verified by Guinness World Records — was a joint effort between the cities of Markham, Ontario, Canada and Zhongshan, Guangdong, China. The creature was 18,269 feet long, and 3,000 people participated in the dance. After all that, one could only imagine that these two cities had good luck for years!

At the Center

The Tucson Chinese Cultural Center (TCCC) serves the social and cultural needs of the 5,000 Chinese Pima County residents. The center’s contemporary structure honors Chinese traditions with symbolic design elements such as circular moon gates and the use of the color red. The interior includes rotating displays depicting the history of the city’s Chinese Americans.

Susan Chan has served as the center’s Volunteer Executive Director for the past 15 years. As a result of the pandemic, Chan observes that there will be several changes in this year’s events. The 2021 Chinese New Year Festival will be celebrated on Saturday, Feb. 13 via a Zoom party. The virtual program will include several live performances, as well as silent and live auction presentations. Some local Chinese restaurants will offer discounts to members of the center, with a portion of proceeds benefiting the TCCC. For more information visit Tucsonchinese.org.

Food plays an important role in the Chinese New Year celebration. Certain foods have symbolic meanings, and are thought to bring good luck.

The seven foods usually associated with the New Year include dumplings (wealth), fish (fortune), glutinous rice balls (family), noodles (longevity), wontons (treasure), spring rolls (fresh start) and glutinous rice cakes (career). Citrus fruits such as oranges and tangerines also are thought to bring good luck, and are frequently given as gifts.

Live help