Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Have you Ever Wondered Why There Is No Year of the Cat?

Fan showing the Chinese Zodiac
In Chinese Folklore, the story of how the Chinese Zodiac came into being tells about rivalry, competition and cooperation amongst the animals vying for an honored place in the zodiac.  If you are an aficionado of cats, you may ask yourself’ “Why no cats?  Isn’t the cat a lucky animal in Asian cultures?”


It is true that cats are considered lucky, especially in Japan where the maneki-neko or beckoning cat originated.   You may have seen a maneki-neko in Asian business establishments because it represents a wealth and prosperity feng shui cure.  If you know nothing about feng shui, it literally means wind and water, which we think of as harmony.  Practitioners of feng shui take the bagua, “a grid that reveals how the different areas of any building [or space] you occupy are connected to specific aspects of your life,” and place that grid over homes and businesses to let the owners know how to arrange their belongings to the best advantage.  So the maneki-neko in a business is placed near the entrance to welcome good customers; in a home it should be placed in the southeast (to the right of the entrance) part of the bagua, the wealth and money area. 


Jade Emperor
But to get back to the Chinese Zodiac story which begins with the Jade Emperor who ruled the Heavens.  On his birthday he arranged for a swimming race to be held across a fast running river.  The first twelve animals to cross the finish line would have a year of the zodiac named for them.

 Rat and Cat, good friends back then, were afraid they might not stand a chance as they were not good swimmers.  “Let’s ask Ox (water buffalo) for a ride!  He’s a wonderful swimmer.”  So they asked; and Ox, who was easy going and kind as well as a good swimmer, complied. 

 The river was swift and rather deep, but Ox was strong.  Rat and Cat cheered as he took the lead.  Close the far side of the river, Rat crept up behind Cat and suddenly pushed him into the water where Cat began to flounder.  Then climbing onto Ox’s head Rat jumped to the shore before Ox could step upon the land, and proudly presented himself to the Jade Emperor.

 “Ahhh...,” said the Jade Emperor. “The first year of the zodiac will be named after you, Rat.”

Calendar from May Wa Restaurant
Ox was tricked into second place, but he was content with the second year of the zodiac being named after him.  The rest of the animals followed in this order: Tiger, also a strong swimmer; Rabbit, who hopped across the river on stones and then floated on a log; Dragon, who was not first because he helped the others by providing rain and pushing Rabbit with a little extra breeze; Snake who rode across on Horse’s hoofs; Horse, who is now fearful of snakes; Goat, Monkey and Rooster, who shared a raft and arrived together; Dog, who had taken the time to bathe in the river; and Boar, who ate and rested before coming.  Twelve animals in all.

As for Cat, pushed into the water by Rat, he finally crawled out of the water wet and bedraggled, but was too late to have a year named after him.  Cat has taken his frustration out on Rat and his cousins the mice ever since.

(In some versions Rat promises to wake Cat; but fails to so, which is just as devastating to Cat.)   
So now you know why there is no Year of the Cat.  
 Some other interesting notes about Chinese New Year.  The Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar, thus changing from year to year as to when it begins.  The celebration lasts fifteen days, ending with the Lantern Festival.  The whole fifteen days are known as the Spring Festival.
This year begins on January 31.  It is year number 4712, the Year of the Horse.  Each animal has special characteristics attributed to it.  If you want to know what your zodiac animal is click here .  There are also other interesting articles about the Chinese Zodiac on this website.  Here's another website with fun activities.

Karen Chace, a storytelling friend, has a wonderful blog.  Click here for her offering of stories about horses.

Another interesting blog about the Year of the Horse can be found here.  To quote from it, "...grab a fistful of mane, hang on to the reins, cast your old cares to the wind and let out a whoop of delight–Yeeehaaw!"

Saturday, January 4, 2014


photo by paul davis
Redbirds a.k.a. Cardinals (cardinalis cardinalis) were frequent visitors to my home in northeastern Ohio where I grew up.  That bright flash of red announcing the male and his paler counterpart and mate.   They came in the winter to feast on seeds we left in the large feeder my father constructed.   The Redbirds were not alone, but they were the brightest spot in the feeder alongside the flashing blue of jays, the grays of juncos, the soft browns of sparrows and the stark black and white contrast of chickadees.  Even the brown fur of an occasional squirrel could be seen among the feathers. 


photo by paul davis
We watched, along with the cats, from the window as the flashing colors came and went all winter long.  Those winters were long in the Snowbelt that stretches between Cleveland, OH, and Buffalo, NY.  They were also gray on most days for the lake effect snows dumped plenty of white stuff on the ground which can’t be done on a bright, blue sky day.  But for all the stark trees against their background of white, always there was that flash of red.  A reminder that the world is not always seen in black and white and shades of gray.


photo by paul davis

Of course, we did not spend all our time sitting at the window watching the Redbirds and their friends.  Most weekends found us out-of-doors, bundled against the cold, riding down the big hill behind our house on our toboggan.  That was especially fun when Dad came along.  He was heavy enough to take the toboggan all the way to the creek that ran through the valley at the bottom of the hill.  Before the saplings were big enough to stop us with a BUMP, we came perilously close to a soaking on more than one occasion.  Winter birthday parties always ended up with rosy cheeks and cold noses, hands and feet, as well as a lot of whooping and hollering.  And hot chocolate when we finally went inside.  Still, sometimes, sometimes, there was a flash of red through the trees.

photo by paul davis

Once walking the back roads home after school through the muffled silence of big, fat, falling flakes of snow, a Redbird crossed over the road directly in front of me.  My friend saw it too.  We stood still in the gathering dark and watched as the red flash disappeared into the woods calling, “Whoit cheer, whoit cheer, cheer-cheer-cheer!”


I have lived in two of the seven (yes, seven!) states where the cardinal is the state bird – Ohio and Illinois.  Now I live in Colorado and have for over half my life.  I miss those flashes of red.  Yes, there is still a bird feeder outside the window.  It is visited by redwing blackbirds and sparrows mostly as the magpies prefer dog food over seeds.  But the bright flash of red is missing as cardinals do not live here. 

So I thank my friends who send their pictures my way brightening my winter days with a flash of red.

© Julie Herrera 2014
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