The Chinese New Year festival is centuries old and is celebrated from China to many other countries as far south as Malaysia and the Philippines. Chinese all over the world, including here in San Ignacio, Santa Elena and all over the country of Belize, continue to honor their customs, traditions and beliefs. Although the Chinese use the Gregorian calendar, the Lunar calendar is also widely used, especially in traditional activities intertwined with superstition as it determines lucky days. Today I observed, like many other Belizeans, that a group of Chinese men from the Western Chinese Association, were visiting all the Chinese-owned restaurants and shops. As they entered the premises, fire crackers where lit, creating an instant loud noise. The Chinese lion started dancing across the parking lot into the store. It danced, moved its mouth and blinked its eyes as it interacted with the owner of the establishment. The owner then either gave the lion a small red envelope or placed the envelope on the counter and the lion appeared to eat it while dancing. The lion then danced out of the store and moved on to the next business establishment.
The Chinese, very much so like Belizeans, are superstitious people. In fact, they are like most people in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. In the southern United States, we see lots of areas where people talk about different spiritual beings and myths. It seems to disappear but then reappears further north, when they talk about Mothman and Bigfoot. The Chinese talk about the “nian” which is a mythological creature resembling a lion. It is a large feline beast, sometimes shown with or without horns. As the myth goes, this beast lives under the sea or in the mountains. Every so often, it comes out to consume people, but prefers children. The villagers quickly figured out that the Nian is afraid of noise and the color red, so therein we have the birth of several traditions.
The Chinese New Year is held in the new moon that falls between 21st January and 20th February. The day of the New Year is the luckiest and for the next consecutive days a few traditions will be kept. There will be no cleaning of their home or place of business, as this is considered sweeping the good luck out the door. Some people would not bathe or cut their hair during this time period, as it is also considered to be removing or washing the luck away from you. Firecrackers are lit so as to ward off evil things like spirits or bad luck. Many red and golden colored decorations are placed around the house. Children are given money in a red envelope, but it has to be a new paper bill, as an old bill would also be bad luck. A long red cloth is placed over the entrance way of the house to welcome visitors and give luck to those that enter. During this time, family members can show up randomly and food has to be available to feed them.
The Chinese lion is actually a puppet. I visited Daniel Wu from the Chinatown Store in Santa Elena and he gave me a crash course in the handling of the lion. He explained that the head’s frame is made of bamboo and weighs about 10 pounds, but can be very exhausting because of the dance and position the handler must assume in order to do its actions. Both handlers must be in perfect sync. The one handling the head is in a crouched position. The frame of the head sits on his shoulders, with his right hand extended forward, holding the bamboo frame with his thumb. The mouth of the lion is moved using his other 4 fingers. The left hand of the handler controls the movement of the head and has available buttons built into the frame that, when pressed, activate the blinking of the lions eyes. The lion’s second operator is crouched directly behind the first handler and is holding onto the belt of the person in front. Verbally the handler in front will tell the guy behind the next actions, if it is to walk forward, stop or jump. The handler in the rear also controls the lion’s tail.
It was nice to have seen our Chinese community celebrating their new year while also keeping their traditions alive. Happy New Year to all my Asian friends and much blessings.