New Year’s Day is a time to bid farewell to the year that was and greet the year that will be with joy and hope for positive change. It is celebrated all over the world and often welcomed with a bang (literally). In the Western world, festive New Year’s events occur on the 1st of January, the first day of the Gregorian calendar. However, for millions of people on the other side of the world, the New Year is ushered in on different days of the year, often in keeping with the lunar calendar.
Below are our picks for the top five New Year celebrations in some of the most beloved nations of Asia, each with its own unique traditions and festivities.
The Spring Festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, is the most important annual celebration for the Chinese people. Apart from being a weeklong holiday mandated by the government, it is a time to honour the past, celebrate the present and gather good luck for the future. Prior to New Year, people flock to stores to buy ingredients for grand feasts, as well as various decorations for their homes, new clothes to wear when visiting ancestors and gifts for friends and family.
The Chinese people attach particularly great importance to the Spring Festival Eve. In recent years, a Spring Festival Party has been broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV) – essential entertainment for the Chinese both at home and abroad. No matter where they are in the world, families stay up to see the New Year come.
Around the world, homes are also decorated to reflect the festive atmosphere. Door panels are pasted with Spring Festival couplets written, in Chinese calligraphy, with black characters on red paper, indicating the owners’ wishes for a bright future and good luck for the next year. Pictures of the gods are also posted to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and happiness.
The lively atmosphere not only fills every household, but also permeates the streets in both China and Chinatowns everywhere. Lion dancing, dragon lantern dancing, lantern festivals and temple fairs take place for days. In the Chinese city of Lijiang, where tourism is a vital industry, travellers gather around a giant bonfire and enjoy the unique songs and dances performed by various ethnic minorities from around the region.
Tết Nguyên Đán, more commonly known as Tet, is the most important traditional festival in Vietnam and falls around the same time as the Chinese Lunar New Year – in 2011, February 3rd is the first day of the new lunar year, a date that is also the foundation ceremony day of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Everyone will be celebrating the Year of the Cat.
In the city of Da Nang and many other places, the streets become noisy and crowded with Tet preparations. Never hampered by the relatively cold weather, Han Market, the city’s biggest flower market, opens its doors and displays a wide range of colourful wares like apricot blossoms, peach blossoms, rosebushes, daisies, sunflowers, dahlias and marigolds. Families gather in their homes to worship the Kitchen God, who is said to fly to heaven to report all the events of the previous year.
On New Year’s Eve, families gather for lunch or dinner and pay tribute to their ancestors, welcoming them to the celebrations. Houses are cleaned and decorated. In the evening, people assemble by the nearest riverbanks to watch firecrackers at midnight. Then, they flock to biggest pagodas in the city to burn incense and pray for good luck for themselves, their families and their businesses.
The Songkran festival is celebrated throughout Thailand as the traditional New Year, from the 13th to the 15th of April in 2011. On these days, the most noticeable practice is the throwing of water: Thais roam the streets with pitchers or water guns, or post themselves at the side of roads with a garden hose and drench each other and passersby.
Traditionally, Songkran is a time to visit and pay respects to elders, family members, friends and neighbours. People go to a wat (temple) to pray and give food to monks. They may also gently cleanse the Buddha images in household shrines, as well as Buddha images in monasteries, using water mixed with a Thai fragrance. It is believed that doing this will bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year. In many cities, such as Chiang Mai, images of the Buddha from the city’s most important monasteries are paraded through the streets so that people can throw water at them, ritually ‘bathing’ the images as they pass by on ornately decorated floats.
Among young people the holiday has evolved to include dousing strangers with water as relief from the heat, since April is the hottest month in Thailand. Fun-filled water fights are basically an essential part of the fun.
What can best be described as a national water fight, Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) is celebrated annually in Laos, from the 14th to the 16th of April in 2011. Since it takes place during one of the country’s hottest seasons of the year, it is a welcome and refreshing event.
Like in Thailand, the festival is a time to visit temples, and pay respect to and bless friends and family before the start of the New Year. Many people visit a number of temples to wash Buddha images and hope for a good start to the New Year. Traditionally, the water used to wash the Buddha images is considered blessed as it drips off the Buddha. For this reason, it is collected and gently poured over loved ones to wash away the problems of the past and help them prepare for the start the New Year clean and full of optimism.
Today, this widely practiced tradition is celebrated with enthusiasm; if you are in Laos during Pi Mai Lao, be prepared to get wet! Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the two best places to enjoy the New Year celebrations, with Luang Prabang hosting a parade through the town centre, sand-castle building on the banks of the Mekong and a traditional beauty pageant. Beer Lao soon flows freely and there is music and dancing in the streets: tourists join merrily dressed locals, young and old, in the most jubilant of Lao festivals designed to bring the new year in with gusto!
Lasting three full days between the 13th and 16th of April in 2011, Khmer New Year is arguably the most popular festival and national holiday in Siem Reap and over Cambodia. Chaul Chnam Thmey, as it is called in Khmer, coincides with the end of the harvest season, so farmers celebrate the New Year with their families and enjoy some relaxation before the rainy season begins.
People travel from near and far to meet with their relatives, visit temples and partake in the celebration that occur throughout the country. City and village streets are often packed revellers enjoying some time off with their friends and families, celebrating together by dancing and playing traditional games.
The throwing of water is also a notable feature in Cambodia during this special time of year, although it happens primarily limited in the main tourist areas.