The new year offers a new start, but how – and when – you celebrate depends on which calendar and culture you’re talking about, which is particularly important in the diverse UAE, Kevin Hackett writes.
How New Years are celebrated in different cultures, countries and religions around the world
When the clock strikes midnight and the year 2014 is ushered in, chances are you will be awake. You might be partying with friends; you might be outside being dazzled by thousands of fireworks lighting up the black sky with every conceivable colour; you might be texting your friends and loved ones to wish them a Happy New Year or, perhaps, you’ll be quietly contemplating the 12 months that have passed and the 12 that are yet to come. But whatever you’re doing, there’s no escaping the fact that the turn of the new year is a very big deal – even if your own happens to be on a completely different date and celebrated in a completely different way.
As a symbolic way of cleansing oneself with a view to betterment, nothing comes close. Resolutions will be made, often to be broken within hours; plans will be hatched that mostly won’t come to fruition. But any new year offers a new start and, as with many things celebrated, the religious origins of its marking have largely been forgotten over the years, blurred in a haze of revelry and commercialism, particularly in Western countries.
This has not been helped by the shifting of its date over the centuries, according to the accepted calendars of the times. In fact, it was only in 1923 that Greece shifted to the Gregorian calendar, and Thailand’s conversion was as recent as 1941 – up until these dates the countries used entirely different ways of dating their calendars. There isn’t room on this page to list the variances and changes to the calendars of different countries and cultures, but most of us use the Gregorian calendar, and this came into effect, replacing the Julian calendar, in 1582 at the behest of Pope Gregory XIII. And he decreed that the new year would commence, from that point on, on the first day of January.
There are, of course, regional and cultural differences, and some of those are more widely known about than others.
We are all familiar with the Hijri (Islamic) New Year, of course. Between 11 and 12 days shorter than its Gregorian counterpart, the Islamic year follows a lunar calendar, and this means that Hijri falls on different dates, at least when compared with the Gregorian method, and as its marking depends on sightings of the moon, there is always room for some shifting of actual dates. Again, there are differing ways of recognising the occasion, from simply enjoying a day off work, to exchanging gifts and food, depending on the local traditions.
Strictly speaking, celebration of the Gregorian New Year is pagan in origin and this, in itself, is enough to cause many Muslims the world over to steer clear of it altogether. “Obviously, there are elements of the usual celebrations that I avoid,” advises Salman Heydari, a British-born Muslim who works in Dubai as a public relations professional. “The whole revelry thing that gets everyone worked up is contrary to my beliefs as a Muslim and, while I might go out and look at the fireworks here, that’s as far as it goes. I’m simply enjoying the spectacle but I’m happy that so many people can come together and celebrate as part of their own faiths.”
Does he celebrate the Hijri New Year instead? “Again, that’s not really part of what we do,” advises Heydari. “It’s a much more restrained and intimate time, we go to mosques for special prayers and many of us reflect on our mortality – which is not to say it’s depressing in any way! It’s just a time for reflection and for strengthening our faith.”
A bit more boisterous celebration is the Chinese New Year, famous for being the most important celebration marked by the most populous country on earth. Also known as the Spring Festival and originally a way of honouring various deities, it’s a riot of colour, noise and jubilation, and traditions surrounding its celebration differ wildly throughout the country. Its date falls according to the lunar new year; it;’s different from the Islamic New Year and is normally in late January / early February, according to the Gregorian calendar.
The evening before Chinese New Year’s day is often an occasion for families to gather together for the “annual reunion dinner”. Doors and windows are decorated with colourful paper, with health, wealth and happiness as recurrent themes. Firecrackers and lanterns are lit and money is gifted, but not before family homes have been swept clean to enable good luck to pay them a visit.
Kim Yeung, a Chinese expat living in Dubai Marina, says that, while there is no mass celebration here, his family does go through many of the rituals associated with his home country. “Yes, we sweep the floors and decorate our doorway and our windows,” he says, “just to feel part of it. We are a long way from home and, for us, it’s very important to maintain that link and to pay respect to our own culture and history. We are fortunate that here in the UAE there are many different cultures living together in a space of tolerance and acceptance – it makes us feel wanted and respected.”
Yeung says it’s also a time for the family to get closer. “We eat together, tell stories about our families and try to strengthen our core values. It’s quite a magical time.”
Chinese traditions have spread into other countries over the centuries, with regions such as the Philippines embracing aspects of their new year into their own, despite them following the Gregorian calendar and being mostly Roman Catholic in their faith. Primrose Andrada is a Filipino living in Sharjah and working in Dubai as an office administrator. She has fond memories of New Year celebrations in her home city, Manila. “It’s an extremely noisy experience! Fireworks, firecrackers everywhere, it’s a riot. Cans are dragged behind cars in the streets, some people go a bit too far and fire guns into the air – the noisier the better, as it’s supposed to scare away evil spirits, which adds to the feeling of prosperity,” she says.
There is much symbolism involved with prosperity. Like the Chinese, Filipinos traditionally sweep clean their houses in the lead up to new year. Doors and windows are left open to allow good luck to enter, and this includes the kitchen cupboards and drawers. Roundness, which also signifies prosperity, features heavily in Filipino celebrations, too. “We buy 12 round fruits,” recalls Andrada, “one for each month of the year. Ideally they should all be different types, but that’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Does she still join in from afar? “Not as much as I would like. But there is still a familiarity here with the fireworks, and where I live is always noisy. Also I have a bit of fun with the fruit selection and yes, I do leave my door open – it’s good to be able to have a bit of my home country here.”
With such a huge and diverse Indian community in the UAE, it would be remiss not to look at their traditions, and it’s easy to see when their own new year is upon us, especially when Indian people live in the same buildings as expats from other countries. But the Hindu New Year falls between October and November, and is celebrated by one or two communities on the day of the Festival of Lights (Diwali) and by most other Hindu communities on the day after Diwali.
On the day of Diwali, Hindus pray to the goddess of wealth, Laxmi, to bless their homes with prosperity. They leave food and sweetmeats at the houses’ rangoli-decked-up entrance to entice the goddess to enter, and this is widely practised everywhere here. Before Diwali and new year, Hindus perform the annual spring cleaning ritual for their homes and this is also considered an auspicious period to buy new utensils, vehicles and jewellery – especially gold.
Resham Malani, a 33-year-old graphic designer in Abu Dhabi, explains: “Since Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama from exile, we herald the beginning of a new era on this day and celebrate the new year by cleaning and lighting up our houses, distributing gifts and sweets among extended family members and praying for the safety and prosperity of our homes and offices. Most other sub-community ‘new year’ days, which are based on the various Hindu calendars, mark the beginning of spring and prayers are offered for a productive harvest, or, these days, for booming business opportunities.”
Hindus follow a calendar called Vikram Samvat, which uses lunar months and is 56.7 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. “On the new year,” continues Malani, “all the family members bathe and dress before praying around the Agni [a fire to symbolise the god of fire] for a prosperous year to come. Sweet food is consumed in sometimes huge quantities and family visits, phone calls and text messages are exchanged. It’s a wonderful time for families and, even though we can’t always partake in every traditional ritual, we do what we can.”
The Hindu New Year traditionally seeks to abolish laziness, make resolutions to work hard and prosper and to thank the various gods and goddesses for their blessings. This is especially connected to farming and harvest. Women must cover their heads when praying and a bath and new clothes are considered essential as part of this thanksgiving, too.
Hinduism has a great many sects and sub-sects, each with specific new year’s days as well, and many of these sects use their own specific calendar, as Malani attempts to explain. “For example, I am a Sindhi, and in addition to the new year after Diwali, my community celebrates a day called Cheti Chand, which falls on the second day of the Chetra month on the Vikram calendar.”
Whether your new year is an Islamic, Hindu, Chinese or Gregorian one, it’s a time for rejoicing and looking forward to better things. It’s a vital part of human society to be able to plan ahead and make life better for ourselves and each other, even in the smallest ways. And by examining the traditions and cultures from around the world, we cannot help but increase our appreciation of what makes such a diverse life so special.
Considering where we live, don’t be surprised if you wish someone a Happy New Year and they look at you with some confusion and ask: “Which one?”
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