When Dumplings Speak

Women in new brightly colored wraparound dresses and men in silk wraparound knee-length garments stand in line, each carrying a rectangular length of white material. The procession, led by monks and nuns in maroon robes, moves slowly toward its destination: a huge portrait of a holy man. Beneath his likeness sits a table upon which participants place the fabric after prostrating themselves three times.

What does it mean? Called the “offering of the scarves,” this is but one aspect of the Tibetan New Year celebration, called Losar. The portrait is of their religious and temporal leader, the Dalai Lama; in temples or monasteries, a throne would be placed beneath his likeness. Because of the cold Tibetan climate, rayon or silk scarves have become a standard offering instead of flowers.

Losar begins today. It is the year of the fire-ox. Losar gives Tibetans the opportunity to contemplate the past and to anticipate a more positive new year. As a form of reflection, a special meal takes place two days prior to Losar. Each family member receives a bowl of soup containing a dumpling with an object inside representing past behavior. A piece of coal suggests cruelty; a red chili pepper means hot-temperedness; wood implies street smarts; a radish symbolizes hot-windedness; barley connotes kindness; a green pea indicates stinginess; rock salt signifies laziness.

Opening the dumplings elicits joking and laughter. Nonetheless, the dumplings are reminders of one’s transgressions over the past year. They reinforce the ideals of an enlightened life.


For information about Tibetan culture, contact the Tibetan Assn. of Southern California: (310) 390-0635.

Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of “Multicultural Manners” (Wiley, 1996). Contact her through Voices or by E-mail: