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Shinto New Year Festival Essay

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

New Year - a national festival for Sri Lanka

(@ The Island; By W. T. A. Leslie Fernando)

The Sinhalese have celebrated 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. It could be that during the latter part of the Kandyan rule, the Nayakkar Kings who gave royal patronage to New Year shifted the festival to April to fall in line with Tamil New Year called "Pudu Varsham".

In our country some festival or other is celebrated almost every month. As Sri Lanka is a meeting point of four world religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam most of the festivals are associated with a religion. However the most widely celebrated festival is the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, which stimulates society, enlivens the nation and fosters, national consciousness.

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

Both Easter and New Year fall during the same season of the year. In some years New year falls during or before the Holy Week, where Christians commemorate the Passion of Christ, in a penitential atmosphere. In that event Christians join New Year celebrations after the Holy Week.

The "cukoo" call of the ‘Koha’ during the harvesting time of Maha, the major rice crop in Sri Lanka, reminds that the New Year is approaching. And the beautiful Erobodu flowers begin to blossom. The bounties of farmers begin to fill. Nature brings the message and people prepare for this annual festival celebrated all over the country.

New Year observances commence with the Sun entering the asterism of Aries. The rituals begin with the observance "Nonagathe" where people stop all work and go to the temple for religious rituals.

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

The celebrations take group form when the villagers get together to play the traditional games. The womenfolk participate in indoor games or play the rabana. Some play games of cards introduced by the Dutch.

This festival atmosphere lasts for a number of days and during this time they also visit relatives and friends with kavum, kokos, and other sweetmeats and gifts.

The festivities end with the anointing of the oil ceremony, where at the auspicious hour an elder annoints the young with oil invoking the blessings of Gods. There are also auspicious times set apart to go to work in the New Year and to watch the New Moon.

The Sinhalese have celebrated 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. It could be that during the latter part of the Kandyan rule, the Nayakkar Kings who gave royal patronage to New Year shifted the festival to April to fall in line with Tamil New Year called "Pudu Varsham".

Festivities similar to our New Year in this season are found in India, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, China and some other societies in Asia.

The New Year rituals also have some resemblance to Jewish Easter or the Passover observances of the Jews.

The Jews were slaves of Egypt for over 400 years. At last they freed themselves under Moses and crossed over to Palestine or the "Promised Land". The Jews celebrated this event called the "Passover" or the feast of the Unleavened 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 on the day he was taken prisoner. At the feast of the Passover a woman anointed Christ with oil and this reminds of our anointing of oil ceremony.

Because of the similarities between the New Year and the Passover observances which two events come on the same time of the year, there are some who contend that it was possible that the Passover celebrations have spread to other countries and intermingled with their rituals to take the form of New Year celebrations.

There is no proof whatever and historical support for this contention. New Year rituals relate far back beyond the Passover festival of the Jews.

In the ancient world Egyptians worshipped a nature God called "Osiris" representing the cycle of nature as his death and resurrection. Worship of the Osiris had its origins among the Mediteranean tribes who associated him with the fertility cult and the Semitic people including Jews worshipped Osiris as a Sun God for its life giving power to nature.

There were some ancient tribes in Asia who worshipped Sun and nature. They believed that when everything awakened with the arrival of spring a new deity took charge of nature. All the festivals during the New year season could be traced to this concept and appears to have expanded to various countries and got mixed with different religious belief.

The worship of Osiris by the Egyptians and the Jews, the ideas of renewal manifested in purification by water, fire and oil in the Passover, Easter and New Year celebrations seem to have germinated from the belief that changes in nature are effected with the passing away of one deity and the arrival of another.

As the features of the Australian festival of Romans have been absorbed to Christmas traditions and practices, the features of earlier Osiris worship might have influenced the Passover customs of the Jews.

There is a belief in Sri Lanka and in India a new deity "Avurudu Kumaraya" arrives at New Year. In some parts of our country they make altars with tender coconut palms for the deity at New Year. In some areas in the South a lamp is lit for the new deity. In some countries the worship of deity is performed during the harvesting time and the New Year is associated with the harvesting ceremonies.

Whatever the origins New Year is not a Buddhist festival, though the Buddhists go to the temple at the Nonagathe time. Strictly speaking there is no place for auspicious times in the Buddhist doctrine. The major Buddhist festivals are Wesak, Poson and Esala. Besides Buddhist festivals are held on poya days based on Lunar observances. New year is a solar festival commencing with the entry of the Sun to the zodiac of Aries.

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

In the meantime there are some who want to make New Year a day of obligation for Catholics in Sri Lanka. There are others including some clergy who want to combine Easter and New Year and celebrate them together. This is the worst damage that could be done to Easter, which is the greatest festival of the Christians.

As Paul puts it "If there is no resurrection of Christ, Christian faith would be in vain. By no means should East be undermined, eclipsed and overshadowed by New Year". We see that the Birth of Christ is celebrated on an arbitrarily fixed date - the day of the Sun festival of the Romans and grander, pageantry and revelry have overtaken spiritual aspects of Christmas.

If Easter and New year were to be celebrated together, the same fate that has fallen on Christmas would befall on Easter. In fact a move by the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka to change the dates of Easter in our country to celebrate New Year when it falls during the Holy Week was rejected by the Holy See in Vatican.

The Catholics wherever they are, generally come to their native place for the Holy Week.

They do so for Christmas as well. But at Christmas after the mid-night Mass, they spend the time on enjoyment and merry-making. At Easter however more emphasis is placed on religious observances. If Easter and New Year is celebrated together this religious atmosphere would deteriorate.

The days of Obligation like Christmas, Ascension, Assumption and Immaculate Conception of Our Lady - all have religious significance to the Catholics. The New Year based on the movements of the Sun, worship of deity and observances of auspicious times have no religious bearing to the Christians. We should not cheat ourselves to include New Year in the Liturgical Calendar.

There is no meaning to give overnight a Catholic colouring to a festival which was not earlier celebrated by Christians however popular the New Year is. We Catholics should learn to appreciate our traditional and cultural values not by compulsion but by conviction.

Although Christians are only 7% of the population in Sri Lanka no other festival is celebrated with so much sophistication and entertainment as Christmas. Likewise if New Year is made a Christian festival there is every likelihood for glamour and lurid entertainments to overshadow the simple and serene traditions of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

There is a general consensus now among all in Sri Lanka to treat New Years as a national festival thought it is intermingled with Buddhist and Hindu religious practices. It is not fair by other communities for Catholics to make it a Christian festival behind their backs.

Since New Year is not a religious festival confined exclusively to a particular faith it could be celebrated by all the religious and ethnic groups in Sri Lanka as a common national festival. It’s unique features could be made use of to promote friendship and mutual understanding among all.

We Catholics too could join with others to celebrate New Year as a common national festival devoid of auspicious times. We could also have a special Mass for New Year as it is done in some churches. It is heartening to see in recent times some Christians joining New Year celebrations and taking part in traditional games and sport.

New Year comes at a time ideal 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, flowers bloom, vegetables and fruits are in plenty. Harvesting is over, bounties are full and people have 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, the Tamils and the Muslims and others in Sri Lanka - people of all ethnic groups and faiths could and should celebrate as a common festival to foster national unity in our country. (The writer is a former High Court Judge).


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

The New Year is not a particularly Buddhist celebration. People of various cultures and religious traditions throughout the world celebrate the New Year with rites of remembrance and renewal. For the most part, New Year’s rites are observed at home. And yet here in America, Buddhist immigrants from Asia often visit their temples on the occasion of the New Year. The celebration of the New Year with parades, bazaars, feasts, and music is, indeed, one of the year’s great festivals for these communities.

The Chinese New Year is observed on the first day of the first lunar month of the year. It may fall anywhere between January 20 and February 19 of the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese New Year may be the occasion for a Lion Dance through the streets of Chinatown, or for visiting the temple to honor the ancestors, to offer prayers, and to engage in fortune-telling and seeking clues about prospects for the upcoming year.

At America’s great Chinese temples, such as Hsi Lai in Hacienda Heights, California, this is the busiest day of the year, with thousands of celebrants. Indeed, the week before the Chinese New Year, the temple invites the entire surrounding neighborhood for a special dinner at the temple to say “thank you” in advance for putting up with the traffic and crowds that inevitably accompany the celebration. On New Year’s Day, all of the surrounding streets are packed with cars, and the kitchen staff is hard-pressed to keep up with the steady stream of diners in the spacious temple dining room. For many Chinese-Americans, this is the only time they come to the temple.

Though most of the monks and nuns at Hsi Lai consider fortune-telling a superstitious anachronism, on New Year’s Day they have no choice but to interpret the brief and sometimes cryptic messages, rolled up in tiny plastic tubes and purchased for a small donation. A New Year celebrant takes her fortune-message to one of the nuns. The small piece of paper says: “Fame and ill-fame have no standard, let them be. Ups and downs are one’s fate. Don’t blame others. If we can learn to be humble, our mind will be at ease. With no attachments to extravagance, our nature will be pure.” Much to contemplate for the coming year! The hundreds of impromptu encounters for interpretive spiritual guidance leave the monks and nuns exhausted by day’s end.

In Thailand, the first day of the solar calendar is observed as Songkran Day, calculated to be when the sun passes from Taurus to Aries, a date which usually falls in late March or April. Cleaning and sweeping the temple grounds, bathing the images of the Buddha with perfumed water, renewing the images with gold leaf—all this signals the renewal of the New Year. Indeed, this is the only day during the year when water is poured upon the image of the Buddha.

The day is also one for merit-making by sprinkling scented water on the hands of a respected monk or elder, making special donations to the temple, or releasing captive fish or birds as an act of compassion. Inside the temple, the dead are also remembered. Their names are given to the monks and placed in a large incense burner. At the conclusion of the festival, the names of the whole company of the dead will mingle with the smoke of the incense. The monks receive the gifts from the laity and sprinkle a blessing of water over their heads.

Songkran is also, of course, a great cultural celebration. In Thailand, there are three days of festivity, and often the sprinkling of the lustral waters of the New Year becomes a wild “water festival” in which celebrants sprinkle and douse one another with cups and buckets of water. This celebratory aspect is preserved in the Thai temples of America, where Songkran is invariably one of the year’s most important holiday observances. Perhaps the water-dousing is more subdued, but there are band concerts and dance performances. Dignitaries cut loose a bouquet of balloons. Women sell raffle tickets for a new car. Teens enjoy a rock band and a beauty contest. And there is a lavish food bazaar, its booths sizzling with skewers of chicken, pork, and beef. There are egg rolls, noodle soups, and other traditional Thai delicacies. The monks in their robes, the fashionable teenagers in their jeans, and the grade-schoolers in their superhero-themed sweatshirts all mingle freely.

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