At the stroke of midnight Feb. 16, the Chinese New Year began. It's the only national holiday celebrated around the world – across Asia, in Paris, London, San Francisco, New York – even Butte, Mont., which prides itself on having the loudest festivities anywhere.
Welcome to the Year of the Dog! So long, Year of the Rooster! Going by the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, the world is embarking on the year 4716, so synchronize those watches.
In the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, people’s destinies will be guided by canine traits. The Chinese regard dogs as auspicious creatures, so the next 12 months should bring prosperity, peace and greater equality. People born in the Year of the Dog are believed to be honest, loyal, ethical, and a trifle wary.
Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, is the sine qua non of Chinese life and culture. Dazzling on its surface, astonishing in its depth, the festival weaves a tapestry of Chinese life, commingling family, community, religion, ancestry, supernatural beliefs, traditional symbolism and ritual.
Underlying the ceremony are fervent invocations to luck, good fortune and prosperity, along with concerted efforts to keep bad luck and evil spirits at bay (the firecrackers and dancing dragons help).
The Spring Festival began as a moveable feast, its date changing yearly, falling on the second new moon after the winter solstice, like a quickening of spring. Chinese New Year provided an introductory fanfare to the beginning of the country's five-season agricultural calendar.
In the not-too-distant past, the lunar calendar allowed unlettered farmers, with a glance moonward, to know the best times to plow ﬁelds, sow seeds, and nourish crops. New Year's was the only day of the year when China's early farmers took time out to celebrate. The Spring Festival is, in a sense, the original garden party.
China's storied agricultural tradition provides the basis for not only the lunar calendar and its festivals, but also Chinese culture itself. In the Confucian hierarchy of four social strata, farmers ranked second only to aristocratic scholars, based on character, contribution to society, and, more tangibly, the taxes they paid.
Americans lack a holiday that connects family, community, ancestral heritage and traditions. Some of us look for our roots through family trees or DNA tests, hoping for a link to aristocracy or renown; many more of us feel the need to anchor ourselves to our society and our past. There's a simple way we can: gardening.
American roots, like Chinese roots, are in the garden. Most of us descend from farmer ancestors somewhere in the world. Our nation's principal founding fathers – Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison – were farmers. Their Constitution is imbued with respect for self-sufficiency, foresight, prudence and a wariness about the unpredictability of nature – all traits of a successful farmer.
The garden is, in anthropologist Gregory Bateson's phrase, the pattern that connects. We are joined to the earth, sun and moon, forging a bond with 14,000 years of agricultural heritage. Want to grow prosperous and enjoy good fortune? Garden – and bring along your auspicious dog.
Happy Chinese New Year. May the Year of the Dog be with you.
George Ball is chairman and CEO of the W. Atlee Burpee Company and past president of The American Horticultural Society in Washington, D.C.