Upcoming Year of the Sheep

Chinese New Year (Spring Festival)—Upcoming Year of the Sheep

—by Jinny Batterson

Later this month (this solar month, that is), the most important festival of the Chinese year will take place: Chinese New Year, as it is known in the West, or Spring Festival, as it called in China. On February 19, 2015, the world will celebrate a new Chinese year, the Year of the Sheep (Yang Nian), also translated as the Year of the Goat, or the Year of the Ram.  The timing of the holiday, along with the use of twelve yearly zodiac animals for fortune-telling, can seem variable and unpredictable to those of us accustomed to purely solar-based calendars.  The date for Spring Festival is based on a lunar calendar. It can occur over a range of “solar” calendar dates between January 21 and February 21.  (In Western Christianity, the date for Easter Sunday similarly can range between March 22 and April 25, based mainly on lunar cycles.) Spring Festival begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice according to Chinese reckoning. Because a lunar month, at roughly 29.5 days, is shorter than the average solar month, a typical lunar year lasts only 354 days, so Spring Festival becomes 10-11 days earlier each succeeding year.  To avoid having this important festival rotate through the entire solar year, however, the Chinese calendar periodically adds a “leap month.”  This year’s date for Spring Festival comes about as late as Spring Festival can get.

People born under different animal zodiac signs are purported to have different characters, somewhat like the zodiac months and their predictions often publicized in the West.  “Ram” babies are expected to grow up to be tender, polite, filial, clever and kind-hearted.  On the negative side of the ledger, they are reputed to be compulsive worriers, shy, pessimistic, weak-willed, and often confused about life. Famous people born in Ram years include 19th century American writer and humorist Mark Twain, born on November 30, 1835, and late Qing dynasty Manchu empress dowager Cixi, born in China a day earlier, on November 29, 1835. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison was a Ram, born on February 11, 1847. So was scientist and ecology pioneer Rachel Carson, born May 27, 1907. Modern celebrities such as rock star Mick Jagger (July 26, 1943), actors Chevy Chase (October 8, 1943) and Bruce Willis (March 19, 1955), along with actresses Nicole Kidman (June 20, 1967), Julia Roberts (October 28, 1967), and Kate Hudson ((April 19, 1979) were all born during “Ram” years.

The interval between Spring Festivals in 2014 and 2015 has been a bit longer than 12 solar months, running from January 31, 2014 through February 18, 2015.  There is some conflict among websites about whether the change in zodiac animal from the Year of the Horse (most of 2014) to the Year of the Sheep (most of 2015) should occur in conjunction with the start of Spring Festival, or rather at the “solar start of spring,” which occurs on February 3 or February 4 each year, six weeks before the spring equinox. Some Chinese parents believe that being born in the Year of the Horse is lucky, while being born in the Year of the Ram is unlucky. They’ve tried hard to conceive children who would be born before the start of February this year. It’s possible that the coming months will see a decline in births in China. It is also quite possible that Chinese babies born between February 3, 2015 and February 19, 2015 will have more than usual cause to be confused about life.

In many parts of China, Spring Festival celebrations run for up to sixteen days, from ‘New Year’s Eve,” often celebrated with an elaborate family meal, until “Lantern Festival” on the following full moon. Customs associated with Spring Festival vary somewhat in different parts of China, but usually involve special foods, extended time spent with families, visits with relatives and friends, and gifts for children and young people. In following weeks’ posts, I’ll elaborate on some of the customs we had a chance to observe during two Spring Festivals spent in parts of China.


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