A string of firecrackers ignites, spitting out loud sporadic pops over a steady crackle; the noise foreshadows the excitement about to take place. Festival goers with red envelopes clutched in their hands line Third Avenue in downtown San Diego’s historic Chinatown, waiting for the spectacle to begin.
The sound of gongs, drums, and symbols erupts into a mesmerizing cadence as mythical creatures take to the street. The excitement is palpable as the five two-person teams decked out in brightly colored lion costumes come to life.
The first full moon of the lunar calendar marks the last day of the New Year celebration. The festival opens with lion dancers and ends with the Lantern Festival that evening. San Diego’s festival took place this past weekend, February 4 and 5.
Lion dancers are often martial artists, which makes sense as their performance requires a lot of physical stamina. The gestures they make mimic the movements of a lion. In addition, they perform some fun crowd-pleasing routines designed to delight the audience—two such skits were on display at the 40th annual Chinese New Year celebration.
Once the lions finish the parade route, they make their way to the main stage. After an elaborate performance, three lions descend into the audience to collect red envelopes filled with money. One of the lions remains on stage to act out the drunken lion routine. While sitting, the lion grabs a jug in front of it and mimics drinking—a challenging task as the lion has no hands. The dancers use their feet to lift the jug to the lion’s mouth. Then the lion returns to its feet and stumbles around the stage as if it were intoxicated, an obvious crowd pleaser.
The act that followed was the much anticipated lettuce routine. On stage, there were offerings of heads of lettuce, one for each lion. The dancers move their lion’s head over the lettuce, the lion then eats it. Positioned at the front of the stage they suddenly spit out streams of shredded lettuce onto the audience. The crowd is audibly excited. The word for lettuce in Chinese sounds like the word for wealth. If you are in the audience and get hit with lettuce, it is said to bring you wealth in the New Year.
The Lion Dance has origins in an ancient story of a monster that would attack villages and eat children. A hero emerged that fought the monster with loud noises and bright red colors, which repelled the beast, thus saving the town. With its loud noises, bright colors, and offerings of red envelopes filled with money, the Lion Dance reenacts this ancient tale. Taking part in this celebration is said to bring wealth and prosperity and ward off evil spirits in the new year.
Lion dances are played out around the world on a grand scale. San Diego’s version in the historic Asian district is small but impactful.
The celebrations for 2021, the year of the Ox, and 2022, the year of the Tiger, were virtual; there were no live performances, no red envelopes, and, consequently, no good luck in either of those years. 2023, the year of the Rabbit, was celebrated live and in person; there was finally a return to some sense of normalcy.
I couldn’t wait to feed the lions our envelopes filled with hope and wishes for a better year full of prosperity. The symbols and traditions of the Lunar New Year are not ones I grew up with but I have adopted them. I have enjoyed them so much over the years. San Diego has a vibrant Asian community that welcomes its neighbors to share the joy of their holiday.
2024, the year of the Dragon, will be a celebration not to be missed. The Dragon is unique as it is the only mythical creature in the Chinese zodiac. The Dragon represents good luck, strength, and health. Mark your calendar and commit to trying something new; who doesn’t need a bit of good luck? I hope to see you there.