Daily Archives: February 9, 2024

Year of the Wood Dragon

The new moon is in the sky now and Chinese Lunar New Year has begun, and so has Losar, the new year in the Tibetan tradition. This new year in both traditions is the Year of the Wood Dragon. Dragon is the fifth of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, and here is how that came to be: When the Jade Emperor announced that the order of the zodiac animals would be determined by when they each arrived at his palace, Rabbit figured, “I’ve got this in the bag!” Rabbit knew he was fast, and he was pretty proud of his speed. Some (Ox, especially) might say Rabbit was even a little arrogant about it. Rabbit in particular made fun of Ox, who was his neighbor, for Ox, though he took great strides, was mighty slow compared to Rabbit.

On the day of the Jade Emperor’s race, Rabbit set off at daybreak. Sure enough, he was the first to arrive outside the Jade Emperor’s palace. But Rabbit hadn’t counted on having such a tough time crossing the river, which made him a bit tired, and so, as none of the other animals were in sight, he opted to have a little snooze while he waited for the others to catch up. And so Rabbit took a nap under a tree just outside the gate. Which is all well and good, I suppose… but while Rabbit slept, three other animals arrived and entered the palace. Ox was one of them, but ahead of Ox came Rat, for Rat had tricked Ox into giving him a ride and leapt off of Ox and into the palace first. Ox followed in, and behind Ox came Tiger. Only after Tiger’s entrance did Rabbit awaken from his nap… and this is how Rabbit came to be the fourth animal of the Chinese Zodiac and why Rat is first, and why Ox is second, and why Tiger is third, ahead of the rabbit.

Next came our dragon, who soared gracefully into the palace as he descended from the clouds. The Jade Emperor was perplexed as to how Dragon had not come in first in the race, for Dragon certainly had the advantage of flight. But Dragon explained: he was delayed on his journey through the sky for he could see, from his high vantage point, a fire burning in a farmer’s field, and so Dragon stopped to help the farmer by bringing rain to extinguish the fire. And, though Rabbit didn’t realize it, Dragon also stopped along the way to help Rabbit in his travails by blowing him across the river safely to the opposite shore. Touched by the dragon’s kindnesses, the Jade Emperor welcomed him in as the fifth animal of the zodiac.

The snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig all followed the dragon, but this year is Dragon’s year, and the element associated with Dragon this year is wood, and it’s the first Wood Dragon year since the year I was born. If you are a fellow Wood Dragon, our characteristics are: Introverted (check), not terribly enthusiastic (that doesn’t describe me at all), not so great with relationships (I don’t think that describes me, either), and despite our introverted nature, we tend to do quite well when thrust into the limelight (and that does, oddly enough, describe me: I can do pretty well on a stage or speaking to a large group of people, even though all I want to do, up to the moment the light shines on me, is run away).

Dragon is the most unusual of the Twelve Animals of the Zodiac in that he is the only mythological animal. In the West, we historically have considered dragons dangerous and frightening, but I prefer the Eastern view of dragons as helpful, beneficial, and lucky creatures to have nearby. That may just be my inner dragon speaking. Perhaps it’s another quality of Wood Dragons? I tend to approach the world with curiosity, rather than with fear. That may be a character flaw, but it’s so far served me well.

Speaking of fear: Many Chinese Lunar New Year traditions come out of an ancient legend in which a monster called Nian would come out of hiding as each year came to a close, and Nian’s favorite thing to do at the end of the year was to scare people. But the good people discovered that there were three things that scared Nian: the color red, the bright lights of illuminated lanterns, and the loud crackling of burning bamboo. All three of these things are part of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. Red is the color of good fortune, lanterns illuminate the night time sky, and the burning bamboo is now replaced with firecrackers. But let me tell you something: Seth and I, just a few weeks ago, thinned out one of the stands of bamboo growing in our backyard and we had so much cut bamboo in piles in the yard that one cold night this winter, we decided to have a little bamboo bonfire in the copper fire bowl. We had never burnt bamboo before. It burns with astonishing and amazing pops, as each inner chamber heats up and explodes. Each and every loud POP made us both shriek. Even a half hour in, when it was pretty obvious this would be happening, each new POP made us yell out. We couldn’t stop laughing. And it’s pretty obvious now, as Chinese Lunar New Year begins, that these loud pops would scare off a monster like Nian.

Last year at this time, Seth and I made homemade dumplings for the new year celebration. They were so good, but I am sick right now with a cold and I don’t know that I have it in me to make homemade dumplings this time around. But who knows, for the new year celebration continues on through Lantern Festival, when the full moon returns and the celebration concludes. That is on the 24th of February this year. That’s two weeks of red, two weeks of illuminated lanterns, two weeks of potential dumpling making, two weeks of firecrackers and popping bamboo. Enjoy!


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Image: The Fire Dragon Dance for Chinese Lunar New Year, photographed on the First of February, 2003. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons, attributed to this source in China.