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Cross-Cultural Communication from Sri Lanka
New Year Celebrations

A warm welcome from Sri Lanka to all our sponsors. In this Cross-Cultural Communication we would like to tell you about the New Year celebrations which are observed by all Sri Lankans - both Sinhalese and Tamil. Too often in the West you hear about the differences between these two races who live in our country. However, despite struggles over land and rights, the Tamil and Sinhalese people have many things in common. These include the way we all celebrate New Year.

New Year is the largest holiday festival in Sri Lanka and is observed by Buddhists and Hindus alike. It takes place in April although its precise date changes annually, according to planetary movements. The festival is observed when Pisces moves into Aries and coincides with the rice harvest, a joyous time for rural, farming families. Trees and flowers also come into bloom in April, which is the month when many species bear fruit. Thus April, or Bak Maha, is known as the month of good fortune.

Schools and businesses close for up to three weeks as everyone returns to their villages. Here, they renew their bonds with families, friends and neighbours, and take the time to enjoy themselves and celebrate life. House repairs are seen to, new clothes are bought, renovations undertaken. Festive foods are prepared and shared out amongst everybody. These include: sweetmeats, bananas, milky rice and cake. Young people pay obesiance to parents and elders by bestowing gifts, and in return they receive blessings.

Among the wide variety of entertainment and activities are many traditional games played by the children. You may recognise an Eastern version of games you played as a child, or which your children now play. For example, there is "draw the eye on the elephant" which is done blindfolded; pillow fighting undertaken on a horizontal beam until one contestant falls off; hitting a clay pot with a stick swung on a string; climbing a tall, greased pole; and tug of war. Other games are particular to Sri Lanka - scraping coconuts and weaving palm fronds. For the adults there are many musical performances, traditional dances, singing competitions, beauty contests and sports matches.

During the last day of the old year and the first day of the new year there are many special ceremonies. Some of these are described here and embody "off with the old, on with the new".

The last bath and the first bath are celebrated. A priest or an elder annoints bathers' heads with herbal oil.

Women, the water gatherers, take pots of water from the well or stream on the last day of the old year, and pour it back again on the first day of the new year. To the water they add rice, coins, a pinch of salt and herbs, giving thanks to the water source for providing life-giving drink.

Heads of families blow out traditional oil lamps on the last day, and re-light them on the first, amidst much cheering and celebration.

There is also a quiet time, which lasts for several hours, at the juncture of the old and new, when normal activity ceases. During this period, reflection of the year that has passed and hopes for the year ahead are observed. Prayers are said for wisdom, courage, health, happiness and good fortune.

All these activities take place at specially prescribed times - which correspond to the ancient "Ephemeris" or almanac - and in specially proscribed places, north, east, south and west. These are dependent on astrological factors which are believed to be auspicious. The colour of clothing worn for the ceremonies is also dependent on the stars and is determined by the astrological sign of the wearer.

As everywhere else throughout the world, the old ways are eroding as modern life encroaches. Still, the ties that bind - personal relationships, ceremonies which link past and present generations, and religious observance - are kept alive at New Year in Sri Lanka.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this Cross-Cultural Communication and would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your continued support.

This page last updated: 19 July 2004

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