More than 115,000 people in the Sacramento area can trace their ancestry to one of the cultures – Chinese, Vietnamese, Iu Mien and others – that celebrate the Lunar New Year.
The 4,000-year-old holiday is the most significant in Asia, a combination of Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's rolled into one that can last from three days to a month. Even though the Year of the Snake arrived on Feb. 10 this year, several events are planned for today. (See box on Page B3.)
"Last year was the Year of the Dragon, considered very lucky, and everybody went and tried to get pregnant so their kids would be lucky," said Stephanie Nguyen, the Vietnamese American director of Asian Resources.
People born in the Year of the Snake are believed to be wise, sexy, mysterious and materialistic.
"To have a Snake in the household's a good omen, it means the family will not starve because people born in the Year of the Snake are shrewd in business. One way or another they manage to attract money," said Eileen Leung of Sacramento's Chinese New Year Celebration.
Each culture puts its own spin on the holiday, including which foods to eat and how to ensure prosperity. Mongolians give money to their elders to support them. Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean elders give cash in red envelopes to their single children and grandchildren.
Chinese and Vietnamese clean their houses to sweep away bad luck, settle debts, get rid of the old and celebrate the new, often by wearing new clothes.
Here's a look at how different ethnic groups ring in the Lunar New Year.
Chinese New Year: The granddaddy of Lunar New Years dates back to before recorded history, when legend has it that Chinese wore red and lit firecrackers to scare away the beast Nian, who devoured dozens of people.
On New Year's Eve, families visit elders to eat dumplings shaped like silver ingots called "jiao zi," which in Chinese means "sleep together and have sons."
They also eat fish, or "yu," meaning extras and symbolizing prosperity, said Vicki Beaton of the World Journal, the largest Chinese language daily in North America.
"We intentionally cook more than what we need so we have lots of leftovers going into next year, so we don't have to cook for days," said Beaton, who had a dozen people over last Saturday.
Some traditional families place a figurine or picture of the Kitchen God – Fu De Cheng Shen– in their home, usually a well-fed fellow in a red robe with lots of gold representing happiness, prosperity, luck and good deeds, explained Felicia Bhe, a feng shui expert from Taiwan.
People light incense and pray to both the Kitchen God and their ancestors "for a good harvest, peace, health and prosperity," Bhe said.
The Kitchen God reports to ancestor spirits who has been naughty or nice in the old year, "so some families burn sticky candy on the stove so it seals his mouth so he can't talk anymore, and you're free to do what you want for seven days before the new Kitchen God goes up," said Albert Chang of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Association.
"The younger generation also kow-tows to their elders," Chang said, but both the Kitchen God and kowtowing are fading into history.
Mongolian White Moon New Year: This used to be celebrated in the fall, but in 1206, Emperor Genghis Khan declared, "Let's celebrate the beginning of new life and the last day of winter in the lunar calendar," according to Amara Dashnyam, who helped organize Sacramento's Mongolian New Year celebration last Monday.
Reflecting their war-torn past, Mongolians' New Year greeting is "Amar baina uu?" meaning "Is there peace?"
On their New Year's Eve, called Bituun, "you clean your house from top to bottom, have a big family dinner and eat until you're stuffed," Dashnyam said. "Most of the food – rice, candy, milk and cheese – is white, representing a clean start."
Dating back to the Russian occupation, "we sometimes give vodka to the man of the house and take three shots," Dashnyam said.
When Mongolians meet on New Year's, the younger person puts his or her hands under the elbows of the elder for support. "We have money in our hand, and they'll take it and tuck it away in their clothes," Dashnyam said.
Vietnamese New Year or Tet: Long ruled by China, the Vietnamese also celebrate the new year on Feb. 10. "For the first three days you don't speak bad, think bad or do anything bad," said Vietnamese radio personality Nancy Tran. "On New Year's Eve we all go out to the pagoda or church and bring tree branches, usually kumquat or tangerine, because it brings good luck."
Tet goes on for seven days, but since the first day is considered the luckiest, many Vietnamese gamble that day. They also feast on pork, vegetables and square rice cakes called banh chung.
Iu Mien Lunar New Year: While other cultures gamble during New Year, the Mien don't spend money on the first day "because we feel if we do we will lose more," said Kevin Saephan of United Iu-Mien Community. "We expect money to come our way instead of going out the door."
Mien visit each other, collecting red eggs – hard-boiled, dyed and painted – for good luck.
If a girl likes a boy, she'll save her prettiest egg for him, said educator Chiem-Seng Yaangh. "Mien people really don't have any other holidays, so these are the two days we rest and feast."
Korean Lunar New Year: Koreans visit the graves of their ancestors, take a good bath, put on traditional clothes and pay their respects to their elders. "We bow to our elders, who give our kids money, along with good advice," said community leader Paul Cho. They celebrate by singing, playing an ancient stick game called yut, flying kites and sharing food with friends and relatives.
The most important dishes are duk guk, a thick rice noodle; mandu or dumplings; fish and soup. "We celebrate for three days in America, and if it's a weekday we still work," Cho said.
They greet each other by saying "saehae bokmani bateseyo," which means "I hope you get lots of blessings."
LUNAR NEW YEAR EVENTS
The 16th Annual Chinese New Year celebration featuring a dragon dance, food, music, kids games and martial arts runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Scottish Rite Masonic Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission: $6 general; $1 for children 12 and under.
Sacramento's annual Vietnamese Tet Festival will be held at the corner of Stockton Boulevard and Florin Road. The free festival, featuring food and performances, runs from noon to 8 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.