Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Chinese New Year Celebrations Conclude with the Annual Lantern Festival

In just two days, the two week long period of Chinese New Year celebrations will come to a close. So of course, it is only right to end China’s most important holiday with one of their most important festivals. The Chinese Lantern Festival can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty, over 2,000 years ago. After learning that monks often lit lanterns in temples to show respect to Buddha, Emperor Hanmingdi felt that custom should be done in all temples, households, and royal palaces. Eventually, the practice turned into a large festival celebrated annually among all people. 

Popularity for the festival grew during the Tang and Song dynasties, about 1,000 years after the practice of lighting lanterns first began. Historical records document stories about how the people celebrated the festival by dancing and singing from dusk till dawn. Today, customs vary from region to region but there are a few practices that can be seen no matter where you are celebrating. These include watching lanterns, guessing lantern riddles, and lion and dragon dances. 

The main event of the celebration is, of course, to light and release lanterns. As you can imagine, it is a spectacular sight to see thousands of beautiful and creative lanterns floating into the night sky. In different places lanterns carry with them different meaning, for example, in Taiwan lanterns stand for brightness and birth. Therefore, lighting the lantern signifies lighting hope for the future. It is customary for women who wish to become pregnant to walk under hanging lanterns to pray for a child.

One of the most popular activities during the festival is the lantern riddle game. The game is played by putting a riddle on the outside of the lantern with the correct answer on a folded piece of paper inside. If the person guesses the correct answer they receive a small gift from the person who gave the lantern to them. 

Another custom seen throughout most regions of China during this holiday is to consume Yuanxiao, sweet stuffed dumplings made of glutinous rice flour and served in soup. This practice is believed to have originated during the Song Dynasty. Due to their round shape, the dumplings are a symbol of togetherness, so when eating with the family it represents staying together. 

Lion dances are popular during the Lantern Festival as well as many other festivals and holidays. The dances are believed to scare away evil spirits and bring good luck to those who watch or participate. In ancient Chinese culture, lions have long been a symbol for strength and bravery, so the dances are also used during the Lantern festival to pray for safety and protection during the new year. 

The History Behind Japan's Girls' Day Traditions

With the arrival of March, we can begin to look forward to a transition from the long and cold winter into the beginning of the spring months. The coming of spring not only means welcoming warmer weather, but also a season full of fun and traditional festivals and holidays throughout Asia. 

One of the first spring holidays in Japan has already arrived! Today is not just March 3rd, it is also Girls’ Day. Also referred to as the Doll Festival or Hinamatsuri, Girl’s Day is one of the oldest known holiday traditions in Japan. The annual celebration first began during the Heian Period, which dates all the way back to 794. The people of the ancient villages began first by displaying the beautifully crafted dolls in their homes, believing that they possessed the capacity to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune. It then became customary to engage in a custom known as hina-nagashi. This practice called for people to place the dolls into boats and push the boats out to sea, with the belief that the dolls would carry the bad spirits away with them. 

The Doll Festival has also become referred to as Girl’s Day because during the Heian Period, and still today, it was popular for many of the little girls to play with dolls. The dolls were so loved that they even became seen as the protectors or caretakers of the girls, warding off bad spirits and keeping a watchful eye on their owner throughout her childhood, adolescence, courtship, and even marriage. 

Each year as the hand-crafted dolls are displayed, it reminds the people of Japan of an almost millennia-old custom. If you are looking to get a taste of the rich culture and history of Japan, there is no better time than during this beautiful display of Japanese history. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Japan Celebrates the Arrival of Girls' Day

Excitement is growing throughout Japan due to the arrival of one of the nation’s biggest holiday traditions, Girls’ Day. The millennia old celebration, also referred to as Hinamatsuri or the Doll Festival, takes place every year on March 3rd. With all the history and tradition behind this special day comes just as many customs and celebrations. 

One of the oldest, and most important, customs that comes each year with the arrival of March 3rd is the displaying of dolls, the reason behind one of the holiday's names. This practice began during the Heian period. The dolls can start to be seen being displayed throughout Japanese homes around mid-February and remain there through the end of the celebrations. It is also customary for many people to participate in an ancient Japanese custom called hina-nagashi, one of the very first practices of Girls’ Day. During hina-nagashi people place straw dolls into a boat and cast the boat out to sea, believing the dolls carry the bad spirits away with them. The more exquisite dolls do not get put in the boats- sometimes these dolls are passed down through generations- instead they get taken down and put away after the celebrations have come to an end. Although they are put on display in February, it is important that the dolls are taken down no later than March 4th, or it is believed the daughter of the family will get married late. 

And what kind of holiday would be complete without food and drinks? Along with the traditional celebrations during the holiday come traditional dishes. Traditional foods consumed on this day include hina-arare, bite-sized crackers flavored with either soy sauce or sugar (which one depends on the region) as well as colored rice cakes, or hishimochi. Chirashizushi, sushi rice flavored with sugar and vinegar then topped with raw fish among other various ingredients, is also a holiday favorite. 

For girls seeking a united and peaceful relationship, it is suggested that they consume ushiojiru, a soup, that contains clams still in their shells because a pair of clam shells can fit perfectly together- but only with the original pair. In addition to traditional foods, Girls’ Day also brings to the table a customary beverage, called shirozake, a Japanese sake made from fermented rice.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

My Review of Eileen Wacker's 'Red Penguin and the Missing Sushi'

In Eileen Wacker’s second book in the Fujimini Adventure Series, Fujimini Island is filled with excitement as the animals prepare for the much anticipated Moon Festival Celebration, a traditional Chinese harvest festival. All the hamsters are busily making beautiful traditional lanterns while Red Penguin is crafting her prized sushi. The other critters who live on Fujimini Island are doing all the can to help, including Blue Whale who just loves parties. Red Penguin is very proud of her sushi, and is doing a bit of showing off and bragging to the hamsters about how important it is. Suddenly, her beloved sushi vanishes. Has a simple mistake been made or is someone trying to teach Red Penguin a lesson about bragging? 

Given 4.62 out of 5 stars on Good Reads and 5 out of 5 stars on Barnes and Noble, this book is an excellent way to make kids smile and laugh along through the adventures of the Fujimini Island animals while also learning a subtle but important moral lesson about bragging. 

A customer reviewed the book on Barnes and Noble’s website, giving it a 5 out of 5 and commented:
“Red Penguin and the Missing Sushi is a clever and very funny little book. The characters are great and the story keeps children engaged. Plus, the author infuses bits of asian culture into the story. It's fun and educational!”
When asked about her inspiration behind this book author and CEO of ONCEKids Eileen Wacker responded, My inspiration for Red Penguin and the Missing Sushi was children’s hide and seek, sushi making and bragging! It is a true adventure story involving two best friends who decide to teach a sushi making bragging chef a lesson. Of course it backfires and the importance of working together to solve a problem comes into play! I love this story and the bragging penguin is really a great friend and chef!”

Enjoy the story on your kindle, hardcopy, or as an animated book!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Summary and Review of Eileen Wacker's Pink Hamster and the Big Birthday Surprise

The fourth installation in Eileen Wacker’s Fujimini Adventure Series, stars the adorable and peppy Pink Hamster who is beside herself with excitement when she wakes up ready to celebrate her birthday. Her absolute favorite part about her birthday is the cake- so much so that she has been dreaming about it all night. As soon as Pink Hamster wakes up she races to find all her Fujimini Island friends to start her big day. Thoughts of singing, parties, dancing, presents, and of course cake fill her mind. When she finally stumbles upon her hamster friends, she realizes that no one seems to have even remembered her birthday, even her best friend Green Hamster. Is this going to turn out to be the worst birthday ever or do her friends have a little something up their sleeve?

Rated 4.91 out of 5 stars on Good Reads and 5 out of 5 stars from Barnes and Noble, this book is sure to please. Pink Hamster is a silly and lovable character who keeps children interested from the very first sentence with her spunk and charm

When asked about her inspiration behind the book, author Eileen Wacker responded, "The inspiration for pink hamster and the big birthday surprise was my little girl. She's a summer baby so she never had the traditional birthday, always last minute always family. She loves birthday cake and hershey bars. I know kids living and anticipating birthdays is universal so I thought if the character that loves her birthday the most thinking everyone forgot would make a great story. I added the part about little lies as we all know how they can backfire. I also planted her dreaming of a little white dragon as a shape shifting dragon would be featured in the next story! Of course there is a happy ending as birthdays should always be happy!"

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How the Chinese are Celebrating the Chinese New Year (Part Two)

Today is February 19th which means that the long awaited day, Chinese New Year, has officially arrived! Due to the time difference, people in China have already been celebrating for almost a day- and some people kick started their celebrations this past weekend! After the New Years Eve Reunion dinner has concluded and the red envelops have been exchanged, families eagerly await the sound of the midnight bells that will let them know the New Year has arrived. If they somehow missed the bells though, no worries because they certainly wouldn’t of missed the crescendo of fireworks and firecrackers lighting up the night sky the moment the clock struck midnight.

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Fireworks and firecrackers are one of the oldest and most important customs of the New Year, but in recent years they have been banned from major cities due to the danger and noise disturbances they’ve caused. But this doesn’t stop people in smaller cities and rural areas from practicing the firecracker tradition. Most families spend the rest of their night enjoying the fireworks show and little children run in the street throwing their miniature firecrackers and quickly covering their ears. 

This day marks the beginning of the Year of the Sheep, a mild and gentle animal that lives peacefully in groups. Last week, Hong Kong leader CY Leung gave a holiday speech, urging people to “be like sheep” during their celebrations this year, in an effort to avoid some of the accidents that have occurred in the past from some hardcore celebrating.  

Chinese families also use this time to give thanks to their ancestors. Many people will burn paper money and sweep the graves of deceased family members as an offering to their ancestors. These customs are a way for families to show their deceased loved ones respect and that they are missing them on this special day. It is also to ask for good fortune and protection for their children during the upcoming year. These customs are performed over the course of the holiday, but they are the most important during the first few days.

Depending on where you live, you might also witness lion and dragon dances during various parades, especially in Hong Kong and Macau.  
One of the most widespread traditions for the first day of the new year is for everyone to wear a new outfit (new clothes for the new year), preferable red in color. Red is the color symbolizing good luck, so it is the most common color seen during this important time. To spread the New Years cheer, people will wish everyone they see, stranger or not, “Gongxi”, which literally means “respect joy”, which can mean greetings or congratulations. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How the Chinese Celebrate the Chinese New Year (Part One of Two)

With Chinese New Year just two days away, activities for preparation are over and people are getting ready for the celebrations to start. Some people have already begun their celebrations, attending various parades and festivals this past weekend. Families have spent the last few weeks preparing for a reason, the Chinese New Year is not just one day, but a whole 16 days worth of celebrating. Also referred to as the Spring Festival, this holiday is the most widely celebrated holiday in China, as well as one of the most important traditions in the Chinese culture. Preparing included activities such as cleaning, shopping, getting a haircut, and more- but all of those should be finished by now as the people get ready for the festival’s arrival.

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If anyone still has some sweeping left to do, they’d better get on it! An important Chinese New Year’s tradition is a type of cleaning Chinese people call “sweeping the dust”, which is a symbol of bidding the old year farewell and making room for the New Year to bring good luck into the home. However, sweeping or any sort of cleaning is strongly advised against during the first two days of the New Year because it is believed to sweep away the good luck that the New Year brings. 
Now that the house has been cleaned and all the necessary items have been bought, it is time to decorate the house. Putting up New Year decorations and preparing the house for the holiday is something most families typically do the night before the New Year. Houses are decorated with red lanterns, red couplets, New Year paintings, and images of goats or sheep since this 2015 is the Year of the Sheep. Another important custom typically done on New Year’s Eve is to paste a “door god” image on to the front door. Although the “door gods” were originally made of carved peach wood, nowadays most people just paste printed images. These images are a prayer for health, peace, and longevity. Two door gods are thought to ward off evil spirits and keep them from entering the home. The door gods are always scowling and holding weapons to intimidate evil spirits and display power. 

The New Year’s paintings serve a different purpose. The paintings are put up to create a joyful and prosperous environment in the home. The subjects of the paintings are typically positive, happy ones including birds, flowers, ripe fruit, legends, treasure and more. 

And now that the home has been decorated and all the necessary items to bring in good luck and fortune have been put up, it is time for the New Year’s Eve dinner. Having a big feast with the family is seen as a critical aspect of the New Year’s celebration and most people try their hardest to make sure they are present. The food served on this special night varies depending on which region of China you’re in. In northern China, the traditional food for New Years Eve is dumplings shaped like a half moon. In southern China, they consume niangao, a cake made of rice flour, as their traditional dish. 

Since the family is all together for this wonderful dinner, parents and grandparents use this time to give the red envelopes filled with lucky money to the children. The gift symbolizes the parents’ wish for their children to stay healthy and grow a lot during the upcoming year. 

Much like New Year’s Eve in the United States, in China families stay up till at least midnight to witness the beginning of the New Year and hear the traditional midnight bells begin to ring.