Alice Wang's souvenir and import shop in Chinatown always does a brisk business this time of year in red hand-painted candles, gold-embossed red envelopes and incense.
Her customers were doing their New Year's shopping, the Chinese new year that is. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, year 4683, the Year of the Ox, began yesterday, with celebrations and family dinners among many of the area's 18,230 Chinese, of whom 2,476 live in the District.
Many feasted on the traditional special meal featuring whole chickens complete with head and feet, sweet round New Year's cake and black bean cake and watermelon seeds dyed red, for that is the good luck color for a bountiful new year.
But many working families will wait to the long weekend ahead to celebrate. The New Year's parade that annually curls its way through Chinatown in downtown has been scheduled for Sunday.
Wang, a plump, talkative, dark-haired woman of 41 who runs her shop at 800 Seventh St. NW., remembers the traditional new year celebrations that she and her family shared in their native Shanghai province.
"We lived in Soochow, a two-hour train ride from Shanghai. My family raised chickens, and I would help shoo them from the front yard to the back at night. At New Year's, we would choose a few to be killed for the special meal."
The chickens, Wang says, are traditionally served with the head and feet intact. "We also serve the fish with the head and tail -- so that the new year will have a good beginning and a good end," she said. "We never finish the fish, we have something left over, like savings, for the rest of the year.
"When I was young, I dreamed about the New Year, I really loved it. There was lots to eat, and we would get new clothes. I would get a new red or pink cotton dress . . . and we would have fish, pork, duck and a lot of desserts. My mother would make rice cakes, very sweet, that tasted very good, black bean cakes, sweet buns with a red date on top. We would also have peanuts, and crunchy, red-dyed watermelon seeds."
The children looked forward to receiving their red envelopes into which parents and relatives had tucked money. The money was to be spent only on things that brought pleasure. "We would bow to our parents, and they would say 'we wish you kids to have a long life and listen to your parents' and then we would get the envelopes.
"In Shanghai, the first thing we would do for the New Year is to thank the kitchen god. We would leave some food out on the stove, a nice dinner for the god, so that he would report good things about us and we would have a good year. My mother had a brick oven, and we cooked using dried rice grass as fuel," she recalled.
On New Year's Eve the whole family would gather to perform the ceremony of trying to contact deceased ancestors. "We set up three wine cups and three sets of chopsticks in front of the red candles -- three means infinity in Chinese, representing all our relatives. Dishes of food were set out for them, and we burned gold foil to give them money. It was a way of talking to our ancestors. But if you were a woman, and your father-in-law was dead, you could only summon him, and not your own father.
"I remember my grandmother crying -- she said she was talking to her dead husband," Wang recalled.
Many of these traditions are now only memories since the family came to this country and the older family members keep alive the few rituals that remain.
"It's the older people in Chinatown, people like my mother who still celebrate the old way," said Wang. "If my mother did not live nearby now, we could not celebrate the New Year the same way.