New Year: A national festival or a religious festival?

by W. T. Leslie Fernando

New Year is an event where all the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other communities in Sri Lanka could and should celebrate as a common national festival to foster national unity in our country.

In our country almost every month some festival or other is celebrated. As Sri Lanka is a meeting place of four world religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, most of the festivals are associated with religion. However, the most widely celebrated festival is the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, which stimulates society, enlivens the nation and fosters national consciousness. It is not confined to any religion.

The “Cukoo” call of the Koha during the harvesting time of Maha, the major rice crop in Sri Lanka, reminds that New Year is approaching. And beautiful Erobodu flowers begin to blossom. The bounties of farmers are filling. Nature brings the message and people prepare for the New Year, celebrated all over the country on a grand scale.

New Year observances commence with the Sun entering the austerism of Aries. The rituals begin with the observance of “nonagathe”, where people stop all work and go to temples for religious observances.

The festivities begin with the lighting of the hearth at the auspicious time. The whole family clad in new clothes in the lucky colour eat together the first meal also at the auspicious time. They exchange gifts and are pardoned by elders for their lapses.

The celebrations take a group form when villagers get together and play the traditional games. Womenfolk participate in indoor games or play the raban.

[Clay pots are sold in Ratmalana for the New Year – Photo:]

The festival atmosphere lasts for a number of days and during this time they visit relations and friends with kavum, kokis, other sweetmeats and various gifts. The festivities end with the anointing of the oil ceremony where at the auspicious time an elder annoints the young with oil on the head invoking the blessings of the gods. There are also auspicious times to go for work in the New Year and to watch the new moon.

The Sinhalese have celebrated the New Year from time immemorial. Robert Knox writes that during his time, New Year was a major festival of the Sinhalese and it was celebrated in March. Festivities similar to our New Year are found in this season in India, Iran, Thailand, Mynamar (Burma), Taiwan and China.

Earlier New Year was celebrated mainly by Buddhists and Hindus in our country. Now Christians too participate in New Year celebrations and in recent times it has become almost a national festival.

There are some who want to confine New Year within a religious spectrum. Prof. J. B. Dissanayake draws attention to the fact that this festival is also called “Sinhala and Hindu New Year”. As it is observed mainly by Buddhists and Hindus, he opines that it should be called “Buddhist and Hindu New Year”.

[“Thoranam” (young coconut leaves were plaited together by fingers) is sold for Rs.5/= – Pic: HA]

New Year is not a Buddhist festival although Buddhists go to temple at the Nonagathe time. Strictly speaking there is no place for auspicious times in the Buddhist doctrine. In the Nakkaththa Pathimanethan Jathakaya Lord Buddha has discarded auspicious times saying “Nakkantha pathimanethan atthabalan upacchaga – Atththo Atththassa nakkanthan kin karrisanthi tharaka.” (The fool who procastinates what is to be done waiting for an auspicious time will not achieve the objective. If you could achieve your objectives, that itself is auspicious. What could stars in the sky do?)

The major Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka are Vesak, Poson and Esala. Besides Buddhist festivals are held on Poya days based on Lunar observances. New Year, also called “Suriya Mangallaya” (Feast of the Sun), is a solar festival commencing with the entry of the Sun to the zodiac of Aries.

The New Year cannot be classified as a Hindu festival as well. It is not celebrated all over the Hindu world. It is a national festival of Tamils and some others in South India. The Andhras, Kannadigas and Malayalis though Hindus do not observe it. Those Hindus in North India and the Himalyan region have their own dates for the New Year. According to Dr. P. Poobalasingham it is a misnormer to call it the Hindu New Year.

Dr. Sooriya Gunasekera explains that in 1886 when Holiday Bill was taken up for debate in the Legislative Council, one member has suggested that since Vesak had been declared a holiday for the Buddhists, New Year should be allocated a holiday to Hindus. Although the suggestion was not approved the relevant gazzete notification had erroneously described it as “Sinhala and Hindu New Year” and it was so continued.

In the meantime there are Catholics including some clergy who want to celebrate Easter and New Year together as the theme of renewal found in the New Year is found in Easter vigil and ceremonies. There are others who see some remote similarities between the Passover rituals and New Year celebrations and try to cannect New Year with the Passover.

The Jews were slaves of Egypt for over 400 years. At last they freed themselves under Moses and crossed over to Palestine called the “Promised Land”. The Jews celebrated this event called “Passover” or the feast of the Unlevened Bread.

At the Passover like our Nonagathe they fasted for some time before they lit the fire, sacrificed a lamb and took the meal. Christ himself assembled with his disciples in a house to eat the Passover when he was taken a prisoner. However Passover observances has a different history.

In the ancient world Egyptians worshipped a God called “Osiris” representing the change of nature in spring as his death and resurrection. Worship of Osiris had its origins among the Mediterranean tribes and the Semitic people including the Jews who worshipped Osiris for his life giving power to nature.

The worship of Osiris by the Egyptians and the Jews and the idea of renewal manifested in purification by water, fire and oil in the Passover and Easter have germinated from the belief that changes in the nature during the season are effected by the passing away of a deity and his resurrection. As features of the Saturnila festival of the Romans have been absorbed into Christmas traditions and practices, features of the earlier Osiris worship might have influenced Passover customs of Jews.

The pivot of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Christ. As St. Paul puts it: “If there is no resurrection of Christ, the Christian faith would be in vain.” By no means should Easter be diluted, eclipsed, undermined or overshadowed by combining it with the New Year. It is the worst damage that could be done to Easter the greatest festival of the Christians.

Although Christmas is celebrated all over the world in a grand scale, it was not there among the earliest festivals of Christians. But throughout Easter had been celebrated in the Church. In the 4th century when the Roman empire embraced Christianity, Christmas began to be celebrated on the day of the Roman feast of the Sun.

As a result the grandeur, pageantry, and revelry of the worship of the Sun and Saturnila festival of Romans have overtaken the spiritual aspects of Christmas. And it is celebrated in a manner quite contrary to the humble birth of Christ in a cow-shed. If Easter and New Year were to be celebrated together, New Year rituals would undermine the Easter observances.

There is no meaning in suddenly giving a Christian colouring on the other hand to a festival not earlier celebrated by the Christians. In fact a move by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka to change the dates of Easter in our country when the New Year falls in the Holy Week was very correctly rejected by the Holy See in Vatican.

Although the Christians are less than 7 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka no other festival is celebrated with so much sophistication and extravagance as Christmas. Likewise if New Year is made a Christian festival there is every likelihood of glamour and lurid entertainments overshadowing the serene traditions and customs of the New Year.

There is somewhat a consensus now among all the communities in Sri Lanka to treat New Year as a national festival, though it is intermingled with Buddhist and Hindu religious observances. It is not fair by other communities to make it a Christian festival behind their backs by combining it with Easter rituals.

Since New Year is not a religious festival confined exclusively to a particular faith, it could be a common national festival in Sri Lanka. We Catholics too could have a special Mass for New Year and join the celebrations devoid of auspicious times. It is heartening to see that in some churches there is a special Mass for New Year and Christians too participate in traditional games and sport.

New Year comes at a time for a national festival in our country. Rains come after a spell of hot and dry weather. Fresh leaves appear on trees and there is greenery everywhere. Birds sing in the air, flowers bloom, vegetables and fruits are in plenty. Harvesting is over, bounties are full and people have the time to celebrate. It is during this time of the year that many marriages take place in villages.

New Year is an event where all the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other communities in Sri Lanka could and should celebrate as a common national festival to foster national unity in our country.

[The writer is a former High Court Judge]

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