ein-chan, just out of curiosity, what do all the animals represent/what's their purpose as far as the New Year?
Those animals have their own background. According to a legend, the God asked all these animals to race across a bridge or something and the ox arrived first. However, little did the ox know that the rat was riding on him all the time. So, the rat jumped down and when the God saw it, he saw that the rat was the champion. The boar came last because it was the laziest animal in the kingdom. Thus, we have what we call now the 12 animal zodiac:
For more accurate info, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_the_Chinese_Zodiac
People who are born in these animals' years are said to carry some kind of similar traits. For example, those born in the tiger years are natural leaders, or sort. Then again, every animals is divided into 5 elements, namely wood, fire, earth, metal, water. So there will be something like :
Different elements have different characteristics too.
One more thing, Chinese will normally look at someone's zodiac to see if the person is compatible with the partner. I.E, ox is not compatible with dragon while rat is a very good match for dragon. Hence, the dragon should marry the rat, not the ox even if the ox person is a multimillionaire. XDDDDDDD Of course, a dragon doesn't simply marry a rat just because they are compatible. They still need to match the element. Lets say the rat is fire element while the dragon is water element. Then, the water will put off the fire easily. Thus, dragon should either look for metal(metal melted and become water) or wood(water grows tree) to be really compatible.
Uhmm...those are just traditions.
I bet people nowadays don't really care about it. I just study it for fun. XDDDDDDDD