Chinese New Year: Why Are Moms Rushing to Give Birth Before the Year of the Sheep?

Americans have superstitions we sometimes forget about. It’s thought, for example, that whoever catches the bride’s bouquet at a wedding will be the next to get married. A New Year’s meal of black-eyed peas and greens will bring good luck and so will a four-leaf clover. Be careful not to walk under a ladder or let a black cat cross your path, though. You should definitely knock on wood on Friday the 13th. The list goes on.

In San Francisco, you can’t go far without hearing a conversation about another type of superstition: astrology, both Western and Chinese. Unlike the former, which uses months to classify people, the Chinese Zodiac follows the lunar calendar, assigning an animal and personality traits for every year. It also cycles through five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) with each reigning for two years.

On February 19th, we leave behind the year of the horse, associated with intelligence and victory in battle, and enter the year of the sheep, likened to calmness and creativity. Many view the sheep as meek and susceptible to poverty. In other words, 2015 is not a lucky year in which to be born.

China boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and upward mobility is so highly valued that it’s almost understandable what has happened throughout the year of the horse: many aspiring mothers have rushed to get pregnant—and deliver—long before the dreaded year of the sheep. A spike in the birth rate also took place in 2012, the year of the dragon, the only mythical creature in the Chinese Zodiac and the most lauded.

Chinese officials have warned that the birth craze could engender too much competition several years from now when children born in the year of the horse enter the job market. The Chinese economy is indeed strong and there are certain equal opportunity protections for job seekers. Still, it’s not unheard of for an employer to state a preference for a Gemini or Aquarius candidate over, say, a Leo (or to outright ban the hire of Virgos).

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Knowing that astrology biases some people, what’s a sheep to do to level the playing field?

If you are moved by a certain Harvard Mental Health Letter published in the '90s: nothing. Researchers David Phillips, Todd Ruth, and Lisa Wagner studied several thousand sick Chinese-Americans in California and found that those whose illness matched the element and disease of their birth year—for example, fire is linked to heart disease—died younger, on average, than their European American counterparts with the same illness. So mind over matter goes both ways. The researchers would probably say to ignore any astrological information that makes you feel ill-fated.

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Looking at the sheep-themed merchandise online, it’s hard to see the zodiac animal as unlucky. If I weren’t gearing up to give birth to a wood-sheep boy on or around the Chinese New Year, I might attend the big parade or one of the many events beforehand. Instead, as we launch into what might be an unlucky year for some, I’ll be thinking of Robert De Niro, one of many sheep men who’s neither meek nor poor.

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And I just might knock on wood.

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