To more than 9,000 Palo Alto residents of Chinese descent, February can be as festive as December.
Only a few weeks after removing the Christmas tree, some decorate the living room in a completely different way for Lunar New Year. This time around, the Year of the Monkey starts Feb. 8.
Chun-hui Yu, an artist teaching Chinese brush painting and calligraphy at the Pacific Art League, has been guiding her students to handwrite propitious messages on red paper for Lunar New Year's home decorations.
Yu showed how the traditional calligraphic pieces are displayed: One horizontal banner is posted above a door with two vertical ones along each side and one Chinese word as a diamond-shaped sign on the door.
"As red is a cheerful color. Posting auspicious words on red paper is meant to welcome good luck into the house. People in China and Taiwan usually post them on the outer side of the front door," Yu said.
Placing the Chinese word for "blessings" -- fu -- upside down, Yu explained that the Chinese word for "upside down," dao, sounds the same as the Chinese word for "arrival." Placing "blessings" upside down symbolizes the arrival of blessings.
Yu's horizontal banner read "joyfully welcoming spring." The two vertical -- "a year begins again; all phenomena start over" -- were written in parallel structure to form a couplet, called chun-lian, meaning "spring festival couplet."
Chinese call the Lunar New Year the "spring festival" because ancient Chinese marked the onset of spring as when the ground begins to thaw, which today coincides with early February. The 15-day celebration of Lunar New Year moves around on the calendar each year and can start between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20.
Palo Alto residents may not see many spring couplets posted on neighbors' homes. According to Juliana Lee, a real estate agent living in Palo Alto, that's because many local Chinese residents may be too busy to decorate their houses. She said only one Chinese family among all her Palo Alto clients has presented calligraphy pieces at the front entrance, and other Chinese families usually do it indoors, just as she does.
"Although we love our heritage, we don't want to stand out in the neighborhood," Lee said. "As immigrants, we want to fit in."
Monica Hu, principal of Palo Alto Chinese School, said her students learn to write spring festival couplets, but where they are posted actually varies from one family to another.
Her own family displays Lunar New Year's messages in the living room, on passage doors and on the bucket they use to store rice.
Palo Alto resident Wendy Zhang has put out her decorations for the new year, including a red lantern that hangs down from the ceiling light fixture.
Red lanterns are not just for Lunar New Year in general but for the 15th day of the Lunar New Year's celebration in particular, known as the Lantern Festival. The round shape of the lantern matches the evening's full moon, which is the first of the lunar year, and symbolizes family reunion.
Zhang also displays a potted bamboo plant. She said bamboos are auspicious living room plants, given the Chinese saying, "Bamboos bring peace and serenity."
Other popular plants for Lunar New Year include vases of ume blossoms (a symbol of resilience), potted orchids (for elegance) and potted Chinese sacred lilies (for prosperity).
Wen-lung Wang and Hsien-li Fang picked a potted orchid plant for their Palo Alto home.
Fang said she and her husband are doing less than her grandmother used to do in Taiwan for Lunar New Year. For instance, she said they didn't put a whole set of calligraphy pieces but just an upside-down sign of "blessings" on the wall above the fireplace.
In addition, Fang placed apples and Mandarin oranges on the coffee table.
She explained that the Chinese word for "apple" sounds close to "peaceful," and "Mandarin orange" is similar to "lucky."
Mandarin oranges also appeared in Yu's Saturday class at the Pacific Art League. They were at the center of a round candy box, the typical container used to serve refreshments during Lunar New Year. Yu's students said they were filling the box with goodies -- precisely as they would do at home.