A New Year of good fortune

By Mark Schmeltzer

January may have come and gone, but if you didn’t quite get your fill of New Year’s celebrations, you won’t have to wait another 11 months for another chance. That’s because February in Chicagoland offers abundant opportunities to ring in the Chinese New Year, a more than two-week-long festival that marks the start of the year 4717.

Greater Chicago is home to around 109,000 Americans of Chinese ancestry and the city’s Chinatown neighborhood is among the largest of its kind in the country. The traditional or lunisolar Chinese calendar, which governs holidays and cultural observances, begins each new year at the start of the first new moon occurring between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20. Each year is symbolized by one of 12 animal signs in the Chinese zodiac. This Feb. 5 will usher in the Year of the Pig.

While astrological events fix the dates of the Chinese New Year, ancient legends supply its celebrations with symbols and customs.

One of the most popular, for example, holds that every New Year’s Eve, a monster named Nian would come out of its sleep to feed, invading villages to devour crops, animals and even people. The creature had a bull-like body, but its head resembled a lion’s. Villagers discovered that Nian, whose name translates roughly as “year,” feared the color red, fire and loud sounds. To scare him away, villagers used firecrackers and decorated the outsides of their homes with red lanterns and banners.

They also created a fierce lion creature of their own out of bamboo and cloth. Two men animated the costume to frighten Nian; and today, New Year’s celebrations feature the traditional lion dance, as well as fireworks, drums and red decorations. Other customs include giving red envelopes filled with money as gifts and the “family reunion” dinners, which are a critical part of New Year’s Eve.

The first Chinese immigrants settled in Chicago in the early 1870s. While Americans of Chinese heritage live throughout the city and suburbs, the historic Chinatown neighborhood on the South Side is the heart of Chinese-American culture here and home to around 23,000 ethnic Chinese residents. While not as large as Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York, Chicago’s Chinatown has experienced rapid growth in recent decades.

New Year’s celebrations in the Chicago area include many indoor and outdoor festivities that will delight the family, usher in fortune and prosperity, and offer the chance to learn more about the rich traditions of Chinese culture. Here is a sampling:

On Feb. 2, The Art Institute of Chicago will hold a family friendly celebration from 1:00–4:30 p.m. that includes art making, storytelling, music, game and gallery tours. Visitors can create a dancing dragon, make lucky red envelopes, hear music and more. The event is free with museum admission.

Immediately following, walk across the street to Millennium Park for a Chinese New Year Lantern Procession. Participants line up in the park’s Lurie Gardens at 5:00 p.m. and walk to Maggie Daley Park to enjoy a lion dance, art making, and ice skating.

Two area retail centers will hold festivals starting with the Lunar New Year celebration at the Fashion Outlet Malls in Rosemont. The kickoff event runs from 1:00–3:30 p.m. on Feb. 2 and features Chinese calligraphy, lantern crafting, cultural performances, games and more. The celebration is free and continues through Feb. 17.

On Chicago’s Mag Mile, the Shops at North Bridge will kick off its Lunar New Year Celebration with similar activities Feb. 3, at 1:00 p.m.

The Chicago Cultural Center will hold the City-Wide Chinese New Year kick off celebration at noon on New Year’s Day, Feb. 5. The free event features dance, martial arts, and aerobatic and operatic performances.

On Feb. 9, from 2:00–4:00 p.m., the Chinese American Museum (238 w 23rd St.) will celebrate with Chinese music, food, arts and crafts, and a traditional lion dance. Cost is $10 for non-museum members.

For decades, native North Siders and visitors have enjoyed the annual Argyle Lunar New Year Celebration in the Uptown neighborhood. This community event features lion dances, entertainment, floats, fireworks and more. It kicks off at 1:00 p.m. on Argyle and Winthrop (near the CTA Red Line stop) before circling around nearby streets back to Argyle and Broadway.

Chicago’s most popular celebration of the holiday is the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade, which is marking its 107th anniversary on Feb. 10. An estimated 30,000 people will line Chinatown’s streets to see decorative lions, dragons, marching bands, floats and more. The parade kicks off from 24th street and Wentworth Ave. at 1:00 p.m.

For the fifth straight year, the Chicago Symphony Center will hold a Chinese New Year’s Celebration concert on Feb. 10. The event features performances by the world-famous China National Peking Opera Company and the Hubei Chime Bells National Chinese Orchestra. The concert begins at 3:00 p.m., and tickets are available at cso.org for $20-$55.

Families are welcome at Navy Pier on the afternoon of Feb. 16 to enjoy free live music, dance and performances as well as crafts, traditional food and more at the Global Connections: Chinese New Year event, inside the Aon Grand Ballroom from 1:00–5:00 p.m.

And in north suburban Skokie, the Asian Lunar New Year Celebration will benefit the Niles Township Food Pantry. The event will be held on Feb. 17, from 3:00–5:00 p.m., at the Oakton Community Center and will include cultural performances, food, calligraphy, kid-friendly acts and more. Admission is $10 for individuals and $20 for families. Attendees are also encouraged to bring canned goods for the food pantry.

Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.