Growing up so close to China, I was inevitably exposed to the intricacies of its lunar zodiac, with 12 bird and animal signs, each one influencing the personality and fortunes of a person born under its care and setting the tone for the year. Ever since I moved to the US, I missed this part of the new-year festivities. Because the beginning of a lunar year tends to fall in January or February, it also adds something else to look forward to after all the merriment of the holiday season fizzles out.
So, as the Year of the Dragon approached in February 2012, I decided to finally attend the Lunar New Year Parade in DC Chinatown, our Chinablock, really– it’s so small. I liked how our largely unplanned ramblings fell together that day. I will be repeating the route this year on 10 February 2013 to greet the Year of the Snake (it’s Water Snake, by the way: In addition to the 12 signs, each year also bears the mark of one of the five zodiac elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, or water, each with its own color, patron planet, auspicious season, and other whims).
The 2.5-hour parade starts at 1 pm from I and 6th Streets, but crowds begin to assemble after noon. We arrived a little earlier, as streets were still relatively empty, but already cheerful in anticipation. The traditional Friendship Arch on H and 7th Streets invites you toward the end of the parade route, where a stage is set up on H and 6th. I found the area by the stage to be the best place to view the action, since all activity eventually focuses here, and it is easy to leave the crowds once you’ve had your fill. The parade’s organizers also recommend setting up camp anywhere along 7th Street–apparently, the entire route is scenic.
Early arrival lets you in on some of my favorite moments of any street festival: the prep frenzy. Groups of performers begin to assemble their costumes; colorful dragon heads rest on the asphalt, their mouths agape; the performers’ families wander around, trying on props they are not supposed to touch–it’s all great fun to watch.
As all of this colorful drama unfolded, we did not notice that we’ve drifted away from the main parade grounds. This got us to the greatest find of the day: We stumbled upon two small parks on the crossroads of Massachusetts Avenue and I St. (Seaton and Milian Parks, I later learned). Schools and dance groups participating in the parade waited there for their turn, some of them rehearsing their dragon dances, others milling around. In either case, as long as you stay out of the way, this is a great chance to see the costumes up close and preview some of the parade’s main attractions.
We could have stayed by those parks for the duration of the parade, watching each group arrive and spruce up for their time in the spotlight, but we had a reservation for lunch at the nearby Ping Pong Dim Sum (note to self: such awkward timing. Instead, eat a hearty late breakfast before you come and then get a reservation for later in the afternoon as the performances wind down and you get too sick of crowds).
After lunch, we squeezed in by the stage–not an easy task, but we managed–and stuck around for several stage numbers.
All the pushing and pulling through the masses quickly got old, and, once we felt satiated with the day’s spectacle, off we headed to the National Portrait Gallery for a hot cup of tea and the bite-sized and always excellent Portraiture Now exhibit on the first floor. Bustling Chinatown behind us, we were ready for the year ahead and already looking forward to the Persian New Year, Nowruz, in March.