Quick, what time is it? What about today’s date? A millennium or two before the cell phone came along, you couldn’t just reach into your pocket for a reminder. It took some figuring, and the first step was to look upward.
Like a daily calendar in the night sky, the changing phases of the moon provided a luminous diagram of the moon’s repeating cycle. Most early cultures tracked the changing seasons according to lunar phases. Our English word “month” shares its origin with the word “moon,” and can be traced back to that practice. If it sounds simple, it wasn’t: with about 12.4 lunar cycles in a given year, marking the end of one year and the beginning of another took some fancy figuring.
The modern Gregorian calendar ended much uncertainty and imprecision, but it certainly didn’t end the richness of the lunar calendar traditions around the world. The lunar calendar of traditional Chinese culture gives rise to what is perhaps the world’s most popular celebration: Lunar New Year. When transferred to the modern Gregorian calendar, the date varies from one year to the next. This year, Tuesday, Feb. 5 marks the beginning of a period of revelry and ceremony designed to honor the past, propitiate good fortune and greet the new year with gaiety. The festivities officially last for 15 days and are filled with the sounds of music and fireworks. It’s estimated that around the world, more incendiaries are ignited during Lunar New Year than during the rest of the year combined.
In keeping with the Chinese zodiac, each year is keynoted by one of 12 animals whose traits help determine our fortunes. The coming year is a year of the pig, as were 2007, 1995, 1983 and so on. Persons born in these years are credited as good providers and problem-solvers who think logically and prosper in business. The rest of us should pay particular attention to these areas throughout the coming year.
While 15 days might seem like a long time to sustain a celebration, the festival is actually a multi-faceted event spanning many special moments. One of these is familiar to everyone lucky enough to live in a city where the flamboyant Dragon Parade takes place. Friends and neighbors from all over town (and of all ethnic backgrounds!) gather to witness the fantastically colorful, loud, winding procession as the dancing dragon—actually a jointed construction borne along in caterpillar fashion by concealed dancers—makes its way through the streets. More than just entertainment, the parade represents the dragon’s grace and strength, qualities we hope to learn by example.
In a time when we strive to value and celebrate diversity, the Dragon Parade has helped us meet and learn about each other. But other elements of the Lunar New Year are quieter, more contemplative and family-oriented. This spirit is embodied in shorter musical excerpts and songs. Their stories honor relatives, friends, ancestors, cultural heritage and national pride in music as they propitiate aspirations for the months to come.
Appropriately, we greet the lunar new year with compositions ancient, modern and in-between. For those of us less familiar with the traditions of Chinese music, its expressiveness is especially fascinating. It focuses on the sound of individual notes as they begin, bloom and fade, more than on melodic resolution. For experienced listeners, even the material of a Chinese musical instrument—any of seven categories including wood, stone, clay, gourd, bamboo, silk and hide—says something about the meaning of the music played on it.
Happy Lunar New Year!
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor‑in‑chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
Pacific Symphony is presenting three concerts in celebration of the Lunar New Year, including an evening “Lunar New Year” classical concert, a morning “Lunar New Year for Kids” family concert and an all-day community celebration called “Lantern Festival.” Click the links to learn more, or purchase your tickets!