Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Chinese New Year Celebrations

2014-02-02 14.29.24The Chinese New Year is celebrated in late January or early February. The first public celebration in London was held in Gerrard Street and neighbouring streets in Soho on 31 January 1971. Various activities have been added to the festivities over the years, some have become regulars, others occur infrequently, but lion dances are a constant feature of the day. The lion consists of a colourful grotesque mask carried by a young man, surrounded by a number of men with bamboo poles who strive to maintain adequate space for the performance. Music is provided a small gang of percussionists, and each party is completed by a costumed character who guides the lion from one offering to the next. Offerings consist of bank notes, and lettuce (Lactuca sativa) and other vegetables, attached to lengths of string hung from shops and restaurants. After ‘eating’ one offering the lion moves on to the next.
‘The highlight of the dance is Choi Cheng, which means ‘’Picking the Green’’. The ‘’Green’’ is a bunch of lettuce leaves … The head dancer stands on the shoulder of the second to reach out for the bunch and swallow it in the lion’s jaws … The lion then tears the lettuce into small pieces and spits it out. This act symbolises the acceptance of the reward or thanks from the household for the luck and prosperity the lion may bring; the lion eats the lettuce, thus tearing it into pieces, and when it spits the lettuce out it shows there will be plenty of everything for the coming year’ [1].
2014-02-02 14.34.33Other plants associated with the celebrations include Chinese plum (Prunus mume) and tangerine (Citrus reticulata). Straight twigs of Chinese plum (often called peach) are offered for sale, and decorate business premises. ‘It is the custom for Chinese families … to buy peach blossoms to decorate their homes. The blossoms signify spring, which also means the beginning of the New Year in the lunar calendar’ [2].
It is said that the tangerine is associated with New Year celebrations because of the similarity of its name with the word ‘blessing’ or ‘fortune’ [3]. At the London celebrations small potted tangerine (and similar citrus) shrubs with abundant fruit are offered for sale, and tangerines are often offered to the lions.
1. Anon., Chinese New Year, London, 1995.
2. K.T. Cheung, Hong Kong Cultural Services, Soho, London, February 1991.
3. J. Goody, The Culture of Flowers, Cambridge, 1993: 388.
Adapted from R. Vickery, Garlands, Conkers and Mother-die, London, 2010: 151.

Images: main, lion, Gerrard Street, City of Westminster, London; insets, artificial ‘peach’ blossom and artificial tangerines, vicinity of Gerrard Street, all 2 February 2014.

Updated 3 February 2014.