Happy (Sinhala and Tamil) New Year!

Nearly everyone is on holiday in Sri Lanka, as both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities celebrate the New Year. There are some unexpected and interesting features of the Sri Lankan New Year that my non-Sri Lankan readers may find interesting. My Sri Lankan readers can return to their regularly scheduled programming.

Since Sri Lanka has quite a few national holidays, many of them based on a lunar calendar, we have become accustomed to keeping an eye on the calendar to anticipate the holidays. Looking at April, there was quite a clump of national holidays marked. April 9th was the Buddhist, Bak Poya Day. April 10th was one of the two Christian national holidays, Good Friday. (Someone was being cagey, I suspect. Easter is the more important Christian holiday, but it always falls on a day everyone is off work anyway.) Following the weekend, which, of course, included Easter, the calendar indicated that Monday, April 13th was the day before the New Year and Tuesday, April 14th was the New Year.

OK. So that would be a nice six day vacation. But there was more to the New Year than appeared on the calendar. I was told that the university would be off on Wednesday, April 15th as well to allow students to return from time with their families. Since I have no classes on Thursday or Friday, that meant the rest of the week off for me. So, I’m looking at twelve days off. Later, my colleagues let me know that the staff also will be off the rest of the week. So we are all looking at a twelve day break. Well, you know universities. A partial week is inconvenient for class scheduling and all. But there was even more…

As I mentioned in my last post, Kris and I went out to do errands that led us to the Kandy central post office. That was Wednesday, April 15th, the day after the day marked as the New Year on the calendar. I have never seen Kandy so deserted. The train station was open and we purchased our tickets for a trip to Colombo next weekend. The post office was open with the results described in the previous post. Food stores were open and a few restaurants. But virtually everything else was shuttered. Our tuk-tuk sped along the empty streets, slowed only by an occasional pothole, or a stray dog casually meandering across the road. So we asked our faithful tuk-tuk driver how long stores would be closed. He told us that stores do not open after the New Year until such time as is deemed “auspicious.” Oh. And when, on average, would that be? He told us that generally we could count on “auspicious” not to be before the weekend. So, other than essential services, the whole country is taking a twelve day break.

In a tragic, but in another way amusing, related story in the news, six prisoners, attempting to escape from a Sri Lankan prison, were shot dead and four others wounded and recaptured. It seems the prisoners were trying to take advantage of the fact that there were only three prison guards on duty and none of the prison officials. The absentees were, of course, all off celebrating the New Year with their families.

What struck us about the Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s here is the emphasis on family. Families do travel all across the island to be together at this time. The closest comparison in the US would be Christmas in terms of the focus on getting families together and having the time off work and school to travel.

There is gift-giving on New Years, but with a twist. Gifts at Christmas in the US center on pleasing the recipient, and the whole Christmas holiday in America has been skewed by the focus on lavish giving and getting of “stuff”. There is some of that here, pushed in advertisements, but gifts here tend to have a theme. Gifts are intended to help the recipient to start the new year off right. So a gift of a new dress or something else useful seems the order of the day. And families gift the family as a whole as well. A new piece of furniture or an appliance for the house appears to be common. In fact, when I took the train from Colombo to Kandy the other day, many of the passengers waiting in the train station were sitting next to as yet unopened boxes of some-assembly-required furniture that was to make the train trip home with them. Going along with this theme of starting the new year off right, Sri Lankans customarily do a thorough house cleaning at New Year’s.

I wrote before of why Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. Thanksgiving still expresses an important sentiment and embodies an unselfish spirit, unlike, say, Christmas as it is often practiced today in the US. But I think I really like the Sri Lankan New Year, too. For the US, New Year’s Eve is an often drunken party, ending with rueful soliloquies on the missed opportunities of the old year, and New Year’s Day is non-stop football. The custom of New Year’s resolutions is more the butt of jokes than a serious attempt to change for the better and, besides, resolutions are all about the individual. I see the Sri Lankan New Year as a time to gather the family together and, with their gifts, to prepare to face the challenges of the New Year together, as a team.

And this New Year comes at a special time in the modern history of Sri Lanka. The LTTE has been defeated militarily. But distrust, enmities, and injustices remain. Of all the holidays on the Sri Lankan calendar, I think it is fitting that the Sinhalese and Tamil communities celebrate New Year at the same time. The future is a challenge that all Sri Lankans face. What I hope for the people of Sri Lanka is that, in the future, they not only celebrate New Year’s at the same time, but that they come to celebrate the New Year together, like a Sri Lankan family, as a team.




  1. alisonew said,

    April 23, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    You forgot to mention that many Sri Lankans also get hammered to celebrate the New Year. I saw people stocking up on arrack outside the Cargill’s weeks before the holidays started.

  2. May 3, 2009 at 11:21 am

    […] that Tuesday was the day before the entire nation of  Sri Lanka takes off to celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year for ten days.  Things were starting to get a bit tight. But, hey, it was just one more letter, […]

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