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In Elkins Park, the Year of the Dog starts off ruff

The city's biggest, most traditional Lunar New Year's event starts at 11 p.m. Thursday in Chinatown, where Lion Dancers from the Philadelphia Suns will turn the street into a stage.

Tea Lafond, 5, reads to Sadie, a Labrador retriever, as the Elkins Park Library welcomes the Lunar New Year – the Year of the Dog.
Tea Lafond, 5, reads to Sadie, a Labrador retriever, as the Elkins Park Library welcomes the Lunar New Year – the Year of the Dog.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

In Cheltenham Township, the Year of the Dog has gone to the dogs.

Two of them, to be exact.

A yellow Lab named Sadie, and a black Lab mix called Lanie.

They trotted into the Elkins Park Library this week to provide a friendly, furry welcome to the Lunar New Year, joining about 30 children and parents in a boisterous red-and-gold celebration. The holiday begins at midnight Thursday and continues through March 2.

The kids slipped chocolate coins into lucky-money envelopes, munched on oranges, and traded books like D Is for Dragon Dance and My Chinatown. A few grabbed brooms and swept up, maintaining the tradition of greeting the New Year with clean spaces.

A howling good start to the New Year?  Sure. But the dogs didn't come just for the party, to hang out while children made paper dragon puppets. They came to put young readers at ease. Both Sadie and Lanie are stalwarts in the library's "Read to the Dogs" program that has served about 1,440 children in the last six years. Kids who might not be comfortable reading aloud to a teacher or classmate can nuzzle against a warm, fluffy friend and share a story.

"It's almost like they're listening to you," said 9-year-old Jessica McManus.

For children, reading to dogs is different from reading to themselves. Or even to a parent. Dogs render no judgment. If a child misses a word, or struggles with a sentence, the dogs don't mind, noted Elizabeth McGoran, who brought the program to Elkins Park after becoming youth-services librarian in 2012.

It seemed natural to have Sadie and Lanie help mark the Year of the Dog, she said. They are trained therapy dogs, preternaturally calm — even on Monday, as a New Year's party swirled around them.

For two-legged celebrators, the Lunar New Year is the most important of Asian holidays, a time when family members travel long distances to be together. In China, the holiday drives what's billed as the world's largest annual migration, as hundreds of millions of people pack trains, buses, and cars to journey home. China Central Television estimates that 2.98 billion trips will be taken during the 2018 travel rush, measured between Feb. 1 and March 12.

The dog is one of the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, coming after the rooster and before the pig. People born in dog years are said to be loyal, kind, and helpful, always offering a ready ear and a shoulder to lean on — just like real dogs.

Elvis Presley was a dog. So is Bill Clinton. And President Trump.

The Philadelphia region typically mounts big celebrations, welcoming the New Year with parties, parades, and fireworks. Those traditions stay strong as the Asian population continues to grow, now 107,669 people, fully 6.9 percent of city residents.

Chinese make up a third of that, but the Southeast Asian population is significant, including about 17,000 Vietnamese, 9,000 Cambodians, and 1,100 Laotians.

The city's biggest, most traditional New Year's event starts at 11 p.m. Thursday in Chinatown, where Lion Dancers from the Philadelphia Suns, a youth leadership organization, will turn the street into a stage. The performance starts at 10th and Race — late arrivals can follow the sound of the drums to catch up.

On Saturday, the Independence Seaport Museum marks the New Year with real pups from the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, known as PAWS. The Reading Terminal Market co-hosts a cooking demonstration with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. On Sunday, the Suns parade through Chinatown starting at 11 a.m.

Some people strictly follow custom — cleaning the house, paying their debts, wearing red. They don't use knives or scissors on New Year's Day, which could cut their luck.

Others prefer a less formal, mix-and-match approach.

When she was growing up in Minnesota, said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of the FACTS charter school, her family paid little attention to the New Year. It wasn't a traditional Japanese holiday.

But after she and husband Eric Joselyn adopted their son and daughter from Vietnam, they wanted to honor their children's heritage.

They borrowed customs from Vietnam, stirred in a dash of tradition from China, added a houseful of friends.

"We don't do all the traditional stuff," Somekawa said. "Some of the stuff we do relates to joy, and ways of honoring things, even if it's not something you grew up with."

A key part of their celebration? Fish and flames.

At the end of the dinner, everyone moves outside. Joselyn raises a long pole from which dangles a paper fish, there to serve as a kind of celestial intermediary.

The guests write wishes, hopes, aspirations, or regrets on small pieces of paper, then set them alight — the smoke carrying their words to the fish and from there to the heavens.

Maybe it's not the strictest holiday observance, Joselyn said, but so what? New Year traditions vary by nation and region even in Asia. What's important, he said, is that his children can take part in a holiday observance from their homeland.

"There's something about doing something you know other people are doing," Joselyn said. "We've built a little observance, and people come, and it's nice."