When I was growing up in Albany, New York my friends and I ran around the neighborhood play acting all sorts of hero fantasies. On any given day we were superheroes, soldiers, policemen, or knights just to name a few (we were quite active!) I especially remember the knight re-enactments since I had a plastic sword and chest plate. Of course knights typically slew dragons .What got me to thinking about this is that the upcoming Chinese New Year is the Year of the Dragon.

In American folklore, the dragon is usually portrayed as an evil force that deserves to be killed. Think about how many movies and books show the creature as a bad thing. (The only good dragon I can think of is Puff the Magic Dragon from the old Peter, Paul, and Mary song.) But in China its image is entirely different. They’re looked upon as benevolent and their presence is desirable for bringing abundance, prosperity, and good fortune. They are loved and worshipped. Temples and shrines have been built to honor them. That’s because they supposedly control the rain, rivers, lakes, and seas. Many Chinese cities have pagodas where people used to burn incense and pray to dragons.

The creature has a lot of history here. It was the emblem of emperors and an important part of the culture for centuries. Chinese around the world, proudly proclaim themselves “Lung Tik Chuan Ren” (Descendents of the Dragon). These days he’s taken on a commercial presence.

Since it’s the Year of the Dragon of course images of dragons are everywhere. It’s very similar to using the icon of Santa Claus for Christmas .It’s appropriate since the Chinese New year is a lot like Christmas. The amount of candy almost makes it seem more like Halloween. But it’s definitely the time for families to get together as the Christmas season is. One of my United International College colleagues is taking a 40 hour train ride to be with his folks in a remote part of the country (Yes, China definitely covers a lot of geography) The travel scene sometimes looks like an evacuation during the Chinese New Year. It’s definitely worse than any of our holiday rushes. But even that depends on your point of view. “Transportation arrangements are definitely better than they used to be”, according to UIC Professor Edgar Yuen. “Now we can book our tickets on line instead of waiting in long lines to get on a train .”Very soon there will be a sight of the season out on the roads. You’ll see migrant workers with their meager belongings making their way home. If Norman Rockwell were still alive it’s the type of image he’d definitely want to capture on his palate.

”Even though I’m all grown up now I still look forward to the new year…especially the red pockets!” KarenWu of United International College is referring to the tradition of giving a red envelope with money inside. So those people looking for good fortune in the New Year may truly find it with a red pocket. But not every well wisher has the resources for a hefty red pocket envelope so assorted treats become the gifts of choice.

The stores are now well stocked with goodies for the upcoming New Year. Decorative tins hold candies, cookies, crackers, or baked goods. During a recent trip to the supermarket, another UIC colleague, Lily Liu explains the psychology of selecting the right treat for a relative. She looks for a tin that’s attractive and offers something different inside that cannot be purchased other times of the year. Among her purchases-some cream crackers from Singapore. As you might expect, people use the occasion to treat themselves to goodies as well. I was amazed to see substantial numbers of people hovering over a nut display to scoop up bags full for themselves. I guess if you don’t get something regularly, it can become a delicacy.. whatever it is.

The decorations for this festive time are a bright red as Christmas ones are…except these ones have traditional Chinese drawings and sayings on them. Street vendors and seasonal stores are popping up all over with festive offerings. You see some houses display many of these decorations; other places barely bother. I guess it’s like Christmas decorating in our country in that respect, too.

Despite the similarities between this holiday and ours, there’s one major difference. Apparently the Chinese do not make any New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps that’s a good thing since in America they’re typically abandoned within a few days!