A Flovorful welcome to Year of the Dog A Fresh Start

February 02, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It is a time of family celebration, of glorious food, of good wishes and good deeds, of dragons, lions and dogs, of oranges and small red envelopes. It is the start of a new year for Chinese people, 4692, the Year of the Dog.

"New Year is the biggest Chinese holiday," says Nina Simonds, noted chef and cooking teacher who has written a number of books on Chinese food and cooking. "Really, it's the only holiday in China that people take off time to celebrate. For three days, they stop working and just celebrate."

This year the holiday falls on Feb. 10. The date is determined by the lunar calendar, and years are named after a series of 12 symbolic animals. Legend says when it came time for the Supreme Being to leave Earth after a visit, he called on the animals to say farewell to him. Only 12 creatures responded -- rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig -- and they were rewarded by having years named after them.

New Year is a cheerful holiday that could make a bright spot in anyone's gray February. It's a time of wrapping up the old and getting ready for the new. Debts from the old year must be settled, and homes get a thorough cleaning. The house is decorated with flowers. Red and pink are considered good-luck colors. "All accounts are settled, and everybody cleans house from top to bottom," Ms. Simonds says. "Everybody makes new clothes."

Food plays an important role in the celebrations, she says. There's a feast, traditionally eaten on New Year's Eve, with traditional dishes and customs that are intended to bring good luck and prosperity in the coming year.

"Dumplings are one of the most traditional New Year's foods," Ms. Simonds says. "First, because when they're cooked or fried they're said to resemble golden ingots, or money. And second because they can be prepared ahead. Some traditional Chinese don't cook on the holiday, because it's considered to be bad luck to throw out garbage, or to cut things."

Even while the dumplings are being prepared, she says, "it's important that you only talk about good things, so you'll have good luck."

Some people enclose a small coin in a dumpling, and the person who finds it is said to be assured of prosperity. "Oranges signify happiness and prosperity," Ms. Simonds says. "You see them used in displays, or used in dishes, like orange beef."

"It's the one festival that unites Chinese people all over the world," says Lillian Kim. "Even though the rest of the time we're strictly Europeans or Americans, when it's Chinese New Year, we're Chinese again." Mrs. Kim is program coordinator for the popular annual Chinese New Year festival sponsored by Grace and St. Peter's Parish, the Chinese congregation and the Chinese Language School.

"It's a homey, togetherness holiday," says James Hom, proprietor of the Cathay Village Inn in Cockeysville, which is supplying some of the food for the Chinese dinner that is part of the Grace and St. Peter's event. "The faraway come home for the new year."

New Year's is also a time to remember ancestors, Mr. Hom says. Families set up a table and decorate it with cantaloupe and incense. Children receive "lay shee." It means "good-luck piece," and it is a small red envelope containing money given by married adults to children in the family.

When it first began, in 1954, the local Chinese festival was quite small. Later it was opened to the public, and that's when it began to sell out. Mrs. Kim jokes that organizers would like to phase the celebration out, but each year when they see the delight in the faces of children in the audience, they realize it's too important to drop.

Food at this year's celebration -- scheduled for Feb. 13 at the Waxter Center and already sold out -- will include chicken dishes, rice, and almond cookies. Two of four entrees will be Cantonese (pork sub gum and sweet-and-sour chicken) and two will be Sichuan style (cashew chicken and General Tso's chicken).

Like many other Chinese festivals, the Baltimore one will include a lion dance -- lions are good-luck symbols, which is why so many buildings in China are adorned with facing lion statues. In larger Chinese communities, it is traditional to have a dragon dance, with a dozen or more people winding and swaying with the long wood and paper dragon image. In San Francisco, which has the largest Chinese population in the United States, New Year has been a community celebration since 1851. This year's celebration there will recognize Asians prominent in arts and entertainment fields.

The dog, whose year it will be, is associated with good fortune and benevolence. Dogs are prominent in Chinese legend; one story is that a dog saved the Chinese from extinction after a flood and famine when it appeared with grain seeds stuck to its coat. People planted the seeds and were saved. The Chinese also believe that dogs can detect and repel evil, which is why statues of dogs also are used to guard the entrances of temples and public buildings.

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