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Thailand Celebrates the Chinese New Year

The holiday season wraps up after January 1st in the West, but here in Thailand we are still in the middle of a myriad of celebrations. Thais celebrate the western New Year on January 1st and Songkran, the Thai New Year, in April, but they also squeeze in the Chinese Lunar New Year which is traditionally a 15 day celebration. This year is the Chinese Year of the Rabbit and began on February 3rd 2011.

Chinese Lanterns in China Town (Warorot Market area), Chiang Mai

Chinese Lanterns in China Town (Warorot Market area), Chiang Mai

Around 15% of the population of Thailand are believed to be descended from Chinese settlers who arrived from the early nineteenth century onwards and integrated successfully with Thai society. Since Thai people have strong a Chinese heritage, Chinese traditions like the Lunar New Year (Wan Trut Jin in Thai) have become an integral part of Thai culture. The Yaowarat district of Bangkok and the city of Nakon Sawan have the biggest and most famous celebrations, but Chinese New Year is observed for several days and nights all across Thailand. In Chiang Mai the year of the Rabbit was celebrated with a festival in the streets around the famous Warorot Market.

Chinese New Year Celebrations Chiang Mai

Chinese New Year Celebrations Chiang Mai (click to enlarge)

People feverishly finish up their shopping for the festival just two days before New Year’s Day. These are the last days to buy food and supplies for the festival, as Chinese-run shops are closed over the holiday. Homes and businesses are cleaned thoroughly from top to bottom and then the brooms are put away until after the festival, as tradition dictates that otherwise good luck may be swept away. On the last day of the ‘old’ year, people begin to offer prayers to the Gods and to their ancestors. Even more prayers are offered the next day which is the first day of the New Year. Thais visit Chinese Buddhist temples and burn bundles of incense, and leave behind floral wreaths of orchids, jasmine, and marigolds.

Chinese New Year Food Offerings at the Temple

Chinese New Year Food Offerings at the Temple (click to enlarge)

Food is an important part of this holiday. Prayers are accompanied by offerings of food which has symbolic meaning. A whole steamed chicken or duck means wholeness, while mandarin oranges bring wealth and good luck. A family, temple, or even an entire company might celebrate together, putting out platters of fruit or heavy Chinese sweets like glutinous rice flour cakes filled with sticky brown sugar and red dates. Many also offer vegetarian foods. Along with these spirit banquets, the burning of paper money, paper gold, and even paper clothes is performed for the ancestors to use in the afterlife.

Of course, not all of the food is for the spirits. On New Year’s Day people visit their relatives and friends in their homes, eating and visiting. To bring good luck for the coming year, Thais offer their relatives seasonal oranges (perhaps imported from China), and give red envelopes full of money to children. Many people wear auspicious colors like red and gold.

Lion Dance Acrobats Perform in Chiang Mai

Lion Dance Acrobats Perform in Chiang Mai (click to enlarge)

A very important part of the festivities is the lion dance where performers dressed in a Chinese lion costume dance through the streets, visiting homes and businesses. Two dancers stand inside the lion’s giant paper-mache or foam head, and the rest of the dancers hold drapes of fabric over their heads to make the lion’s body and tail. Drummers follow the lion, their thumping drumbeats symbolizing the beating of the lion’s heart. The lion dances in exchange for an offering of cash, and he ensures good luck for the next year, often accompanied by exploding firecrackers to scare away demons. At a Chinese New year festival the acrobatic version of the lion dance where the performers leap on raised columns to the delight of spectators.

Money is placed on the mouth of the dragon as it dances down the street

Feeding the Dragon on Chinese New Year in Chiang Mai (click to enlarge)

The dragon dance is also likely to be performed at New Year celebrations, where a long bodied Chinese dragon carried on poles by numerous people simulates the writhing movements of this river spirit. The dance is often the climax of Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatowns the world over. The dragon will roam streets where it is stopped by people wishing to place money in the dragon’s mouth to encourage prosperity in the coming year.

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