The Chinese Lunar New Year was welcomed yesterday in Baltimore with an annual parade in weather so cold that even the people giving life to the fierce lion costumes were shivering beneath the fabric.
"It is much colder than past years," said Arthur Lee, an employee of Grace and St. Peter's Chinese School, after emerging from the cloth attached to a papier-mache lion head.
There was no dragon in the parade held by the school, but if there had been one, participants and dozens of spectators braving the raw afternoon would not have objected if it had breathed fire to help thaw fingers and toes.
Lee said that with the temperature at 20 degrees, well below average even for late January, parade organizers considered canceling the event. Then they decided to go ahead, in the spirit of the Year of the Monkey, or Mah Lo Nien, which is known for an excellent sense of humor.
"We thought it would be good for the kids," said Donny Yau, 27, a Baltimorean whose family has long been associated with the school and wore the "funny man" mask during the celebration. "The parade makes them laugh."
About 100 people showed up to watch the traditional Gong Hay Fat Choy parade, which has been held in Baltimore since 1954. Several traded off working the two-man lion costumes and playing cymbals, drums and a gong.
The celebration of the New Year - which began Thursday, ending the Year of the Ram - is supposed to bring good luck and chase away evil. The colors on the costumes and instruments all have meaning: Green is for good luck, red is to drive away the evil spirit, and black is to scare away the devil.(There was no mention of what color might have warmed the afternoon.)
The parade route began at Grace and Saint Peter's Episcopal Church in the 700 block of Park Ave., where the school is, then snaked around Monument Street, Cathedral Street and back to Park Avenue.
After the parade, karate and tai chi masters demonstrated their martial arts outdoors. Their thin robes were testament to the arts' mind-over-matter philosophy.
Church membership is about 25 percent Chinese, said Fay Lee, a parishioner and school treasurer who lives in Lutherville.
The Chinese affiliation with the church began in the 1950s, when many immigrants were coming to Baltimore from China by boat, Lee said.
The Episcopal church welcomed the immigrants, even though many were Buddhists, and a Chinese and English language school was born there. Though the school is still functioning, it now has only about 25 students enrolled.
Lillian Lee Kim, 84, who has been director of the school nearly since its inception in the 1950s, said the building housing the church and school is a gathering place for many in Baltimore's Chinese community.
She could not attend the parade because of failing health, instead she sat inside the church looking regal in a fur coat and hat, along with a long black embroidered gown, known as a joung sam.
"As long as we have one teacher and one student," she said, "I'll keep the school open."
Kim, who was born in China and is known to most people in the church community as Aunt Lillian, said there is talk every year of canceling the parade.
But every year, she said, there is enough momentum to keep it going because people want to show their children the Lunar New Year celebration.