Singapore celebrates faith and culture through various festivals throughout the year.
Some are public holidays, some are not, but all of them strengthen communities and keep them vibrant and alive through tradition, kinship and family ties. It’s about honouring heritage, roots and connections; this inter-mingling of lives that has created the variegated canvas of humans who are the Little Red Dot.
Unity in diversity, dignity for all, respect and parity across the board – irrespective of gender, race, religion, geography, economics or any other kind of differentiation – is an ethic that defines a nation.
On the occasion of Singapore’s 56th National Day, it is rewarding to take stock of how far we have come. This list of celebrations takes its content and graphics from the excellent article in the August 9th issue of The Straits Times.
PONGAL – GIVING THANKS TO THE SUN GOD
January 14 to 17
Thanking the Sun God Surya for an abundant harvest.
A South Indian Hindu festival celebrating the annual rice harvest, it is also known as Thai Pongal or Makara Sankranti, marking the end of the winter solstice and the transition from the month of Margazhi to the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar. The word Pongal arises from the Tamil word pongu, which means to boil over, and pongal is also a dish made from freshly harvested rice boiled in milk and raw cane sugar.
The festival is celebrated over 4 days.
The first day is Bhogi, dedicated to Lord Indra, lord of the seasons.
The second day is Surya Pongal, honouring the Sun God.
The third day is Mattu Pongal; homage to cattle for helping till the land.
The last day is Kaanum Pongal, a gathering of family and friends.
Cows and their horns are decorated, people wear new clothes and colourful kolam designs (made from rice flour) decorate homes and doorsteps. In traditional homes, a clay pot or panai on an earthen stove graces the centre of the kolam. It is filled with milk and fresh rice, adorned with ginger and turmeric stalks and marked with sacred ash. In modern Singaporean homes, the panai is a specially bought metal pot on a kitchen stove !
As the newly harvested rice grains boil in the milk, brown sugar or jaggery is added, along with cashew nuts, raisins and ghee. When the mixture boils and froths over the edges of the pot, the family cries out in unison pongalo pongal or hail Pongal.
THAIPUSAM – CELEBRATING PIETY, PENANCE & DEVOTION
An important South Indian festival, Thaipusam falls on the full moon day between January 14 and February 14 every year. It is a celebration of the virtues of piety, penance and devotion. The Thai in the name references the Tamil calendar month and Pusam is one of the 27 stars in Hindu astrology.
The festival is dedicated to Lord Thendayuthapani or Lord Muruga, revered as the deity of youth, power and virtue, vanquisher of evil and universal dispenser of favours.
Devotees perform penance for wishes fulfilled, offer thanks and seek blessings. Male devotees carry the kavadi in a procession to the temple. A kavadi – which can weigh up to 30 kg – consists of a short wooden or metal arch decorated with peacock feathers (symbolic of Lord Muruga as the peacock is his mascot and ride), with small milk pots tied to it. The milk is offered to Lord Muruga at the temple. Elaborate forms of kavadi see sharpened skewers pierced through the tongues, cheeks and bodies of kavadi bearers as an act of penance of self-morification.
This is a visually spectacular, colourful procession of barefooted male devotees with kavadis accompanied by women carrying pots of milk as offerings. It begins at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road and kavadi carriers, their relatives, friends and well-wishers set forth on a 4 km procession that ends at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road, one of the oldest Hindu temples in the country.
CHINESE NEW YEAR – PAINTING THE TOWN RED
This 15 day lunar festival is celebrated by most Chinese in Singapore.
On the first day, children pay their respects to parents and elders in return for blessings and hongbao – gifts of money in red packets. Visitors also present hongbaos to children as tokens expressing gratitude, love, care and appreciation. Hongbaos are also given on birthdays and to newly-weds.
Red is considered a symbol of life, luck and happiness.
The seventh day of Chinese New Year – renri or birthday of man – is celebrated with yusheng in Singapore and Malaysia. This is a raw fish salad of shredded carrot, green and white shredded radish, pickled ginger, crushed peanuts, pomelo, cinnamon, pepper and golden pillow crackers, accompanied by a variety of condiments. The salad is tossed as family and friends gather around the table, shouting out auspicious phrases.
HOLI – FESTIVAL OF COLOURS
This popular Festival of Colours is an ancient Indian festival dating as far back as the fourth century. It marks the beginning of spring, celebrates the eternal and divine love of Radha-Krishna and the triumph of good over evil. Its origins are traced to India and Nepal and Holi celebrations have spread to other parts of Asia and the west through the diaspora from the Indian sub-continent.
On the eve of Holi, or Chhoti Holi, large fires are lit to signify the burning of evil spirits. On the day itself, people throw coloured powder – gulal – into the air and at one another – ostensibly because the change of climate between winter and spring causes illnesses and as the powder was/is made from plants with medicinal properties (such as turmeric), it is considered beneficial.
One legend goes that Lord Krishna complained about his dark skin tone, in comparison to his consort Radha. His mother playfully suggested he smear some coloured powder on Radha’s face. Today, streets are blanketed with coloured powder, and coloured water is splashed on friends, relatives, neighbours … even strangers are considered fair game !
Evening sees sobered celebrants dressed up and visiting family and friends.
GOOD FRIDAY – THE PASSION & DEATH OF CHRIST
The Passion and death of Christ is recognised on Good Friday, a Christian festival commemorating the nailing of Jesus Christ to the cross by the Romans, and his subsequent death at Calvary. Part of the Holy Week traditions, it is considered the most sacred week in the Christian calendar.
It falls on the sixth and final week of the 40 days of Lent when devotees fast, pray and carry out acts of penance. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates Good Friday with a service that re-enacts the crucifixion through a Gospel reading that requires various key characters to be read by different people, with the priest taking the role of Jesus himself. The congregation plays the part of the crowd. Statues and crucifixes in churches are covered with purple cloth and the tabernacle – where unconsumed consecrated communion hosts are kept – is emptied. Some people fast on Good Friday. The church conducts a mass and many pray at 3.00 pm. when Jesus is said to have died.
EASTER – COMMEMORATING THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST
Christians believe Jesus Christ died to save mankind from their sins. Easter or Resurrection Sunday commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, his rising from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary, and his subsequent burial.
The culmination of a 40 day period of fasting, prayer and penance – Lent – the night before Easter Sunday is marked with a solemn service in churches all around the world. Candles are lit, water is blessed and converts are baptised and welcomed as new members of the faith.
The Easter season lasts seven weeks or fifty days, and concludes on the day of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit is believed to have been sent by God to the apostles and followers of Jesus.
Easter is a very significant and joyous date within Christianity and is the foundation of the Christian faith.
QING MING – HOMAGE TO THE ANCESTORS
Qing Ming Jie or Clear and Bright Festival emphasises filial piety and ancestral worship, and in memory of family and relatives who have passed on, cemeteries and columbaria are visited by family bearing food and other offerings. The festival has its origins in the Zhou dynasty (1125 BC – 255 BC) with emperors and high-ranking officials performing solemn rites in ancestral temples. It became a festival for the masses after the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 23).
Food offered at grave sites is either home-made or bought, and includes chicken and pork, cakes, fruits, vegetables, rice, wine and tea. If the ancestral tablet is placed in a Buddhist columbarium or temple, the offerings are vegetarian.
Those visiting the cemeteries sweep graves – sao mu – remove weeds, clean the tombstone and repaint faded engravings.
Offerings are also made to appease wandering spirits. Mock money and paper gifts – replicas of clothing and accessories, houses, cars, TV sets and mobile phones (and more) – are burned to ensure ancestors are not deprived of material comforts in the afterworld. At the end of the visit, after the ancestral spirits are given sufficient time to eat their fill, the food is taken back home for the family to consume.
VESAKHI – CELEBRATING THE BIRTH OF THE KHALSA
This festival marks the anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa. Literally meaning ‘pure’, Khalsa refers collectively to all Sikhs who have received Amrit (ambrosial nectar) through the Amrit Sanchar (initiation) ceremony.
Amrit was first prepared in 1699 by the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, to baptise the initial batch of the Khalsa. He made it by stirring sugar crystals into water while reciting Sikh scriptures. Historically Vesakhi coincided with the harvest festival in Punjab. The birth of the Khalsa gave Vesakhi a religious and spiritiual significance, which is the predominant reason behind current celebrations.
Gurudwaras or Sikh temples around the world have since held Amrit Sanchar ceremonies during Vesakhi.
PUTHANDU – TAMIL NEW YEAR
Traditionally celebrated on the first day of the Tamil month Chithirai, the day is observed as a time for families to clean the home, elevate it with a tray with fruits, flowers and auspicious items, visit temples. Entrances to homes are decorated with kolam – a traditional floor mural made with coloured rice powder. New clothes are worn, and children pay their respects and seek blessings from elders. Families feast. A special dish called mangai-pachadi is made from sweet jaggery (unrefined cane sugar), astringent mustard, sour raw mango, bitter neem and red chilis.
RAMADAN – A MONTH OF FASTING
April 13 – May 12
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is a period of fasting from dawn to sunset. Muslims abstain fro eating, drinking, smoking and indulging in any form of excess, and religious duties such as reading the Quran are performed. The fast is observed by all Muslims except children who have not reached puberty, the elderly, the ill, expectant mothers and women nursing their children. Travellers can eat during this period provided they make up for the lost day/s later.
The fast is broken after sunset with the Iftar – an evening meal special to the occasion. In Singapore, mosques distribute porridge for Iftar to residents living nearby, throughout the month.
The month (pre-Covid) has been an opportunity to strengthen friendships as mosques invite community and religious leaders of other faiths to join them in the breaking of the fast. Terawih prayers, performed only during Ramadan, are conducted after isyak (night) prayers, the last of five obligatory prayers of the day for Muslims. If they have the means, every Muslim is also obliged to give zakat fitrah (religious tithe) to the poor during Ramadan.
Ramadan is followed by Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
HARI RAYA PUASA – TIME OF FORGIVENESS
Eid al-Fitr is the Arabic phrase for Festival of Breaking Fast. In Malay, it becomes Aidilfitri.
It is a time of forgiveness in the Muslim community and a time to strengthen bonds among relatives and friends. New clothes, decorated homes and exchanges of invitations between friends and relatives commemorate the day and the festival. Muslims gather for special prayers at the mosque in the morning, and then usually visit their parents after. It is the custom to ask for forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed in the past year.
Green packets with money inside are given to parents, elderly relatives, young unmarried adults and children. The festivities last a month with feasts featuring special food such as beef rendang, ketupat and lontong, cookies, cakes and pineapple tarts.
VESAK DAY – CELEBRATING BUDDHA’S LIFE & ENLIGHTENMENT
Commemorating the birth, enlightenment (Nirvana) and death (Parinirvana) of Siddharta Gautama or Sakyamuni Buddha, this day falls on the full moon of the fourth lunar month.
Buddhists believe this is an opportune time to practise self-reflection and perform acts of service aligned with the Dharma or Buddhist teachings, rooted in Buddhist values of compassion, kindness and mindfulness. Acts of generosity observed by Buddhist temples are known as dana.
These include the recollection and recitation of Buddhist texts, leading a day of mindfulness through meditation, having vegetarian meals and ‘bathing’ a Buddha statue.
Mahayana Buddhist temples in Singapore – such as the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road – practise the three-step, one-bow ritual. Devotees prostrate themselves at every third step to cultivate humility, self-reflection and gratitude as a means to purify their minds towards happiness. The Burmese Buddhist Temple in Balestier and Sri Lankaramaya Temple in St. Michael’s Road perform a ritual of cooking a pot of rice in milk (kheer) on this day – reminiscent of the bowl of rice-milk that the Buddha accepted from a laywoman, shortly after which he attained enlightenment.
DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL – REVERING THE RIVER DRAGON
Duan Wu Jie or Double Fifth falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, around the summer solstice. Its origins can be traced to southern China. The festival commemorates two events – revering the river dragon and remembering Qu Yuan, a third-century poet and political figure of the state of Chu in ancient China.
Legend has it the the river dragon controlled rain, and primitive worship of the creature was often practiced during the summer solstice.
Qu Yuan, councillor and a patriotic minister was distraught over the decline of his motherland due to corruption and its subsequent fall to the Qin army. He threw himself into the Mi Luo River in despair. Some versions of the legend suggest that fishermen at the scene attempted to appease his spirit by throwing rice stuffed in bamboo stems to prevent the fish from eating his body. Others say the rice offerings were snatched by a river dragon and the rice had to be bundled in chinaberry leaves instead, and tied with five different coloured silk threads. Yet another version talks of farmers rowing out in dragon boats in their attempts to save Qu Yuan.
The triangular rice dumplings or zong zi became a part of the festivities which include the hosting of boat races in his memory and eating rice dumplings.
HARI RAYA HAJI – THE FESTIVAL OF SACRIFICE
A Muslim festival that falls on the tenth day of Zulhijjah or the twelfth month in the Islamic calendar. According to the fifth pillar of Islam, all able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so are obliged to undertake the haj to Mecca, re-tracing Prophet Muhammad’s last pilgrimage. This festival marks the end of the haj.
It also commemorates the willingness of Prophet Muhammad to sacrifice his son Ismail in an act of obedience to Allah (God). This is marked by the ritual of korban, the slaughter of livestock. This ritual is performed with the animal facing the direction of the Kaaba – a building at the centre of Islam’s most important mosque the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca – and a prayer. The animal is then cleaned, its meat carved up for distribution among family and the needy.
HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL – WHEN THE GATES OF HELL OPEN
August 8 – September 6
Zhong Yuan Jie is a Taoist and Buddhist event, a month-long festival that traditionally falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Taoists focus on appeasing wandering souls released from the netherworld, while Buddhists emphasise filial piety.
According to traditional Taoist beliefs, the gates of hell are open during this time, with hungry ghosts released to wander the earth among humans and look for food. Taoist priests perform rites and make food offerings while devotees visit temples to repent for their sins and pray for happiness, and the avoidance of all disasters.
Buddhists, traditionally, celebrate the occasion as the Yu Lan Pen Festival, the name being a reference to a container filled with offerings to save one’s ancestors from being trapped in suffering in purgatory. The festival originated from the story of Mu Lian, a Buddhist disciple known for his filial piety towards his mother. e saved her from torture in hell with offerings of special prayers and food.
Throughout the seventh lunar month, many Chinese observe the festival with offerings of food, joss sticks, candles, paper money and paper effigies such as houses, cars and clothes for the dead. In the heartlands, festivities include dinners, auctions and stage performances such as the Chinese opera, or wayang or the glitzy getai, which means song stage in Mandarin.
MID AUTUMN FESTIVAL – MOONCAKES & LANTERNS
Zhong Qiu Jie or the Mooncake Festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is believed to be at its fullest. The day of the festival is traditionally thought to be auspicious for weddings, as the moon goddess is believed to extend conjugal bliss to couples.
In the 14th century, mooncakes played a major role in the liberation of Yuan China (1206 to 1341) from the Mongols. Despite a prohibition against large gatherings, rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang was able to instigate a rebellion by placing secret messages in mooncakes. The rebellion took place during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the celebration of the festival and the eating of mooncakes took on a different meaning thereafter.
In Singapore, food outlets roll out imaginative and novel versions of mooncakes. On the night of the festival, homes are illuminated with lanterns. The month of the festival is popular for family gatherings, with traditional activities such as moon viewing or shangyue and lantern-carrying given full play.
PROPHET MUHAMMAD’S BIRTHDAY – THE LIFE & LEGACY OF THE LAST MUSLIM PROPHET
The birth anniversary is an important day for Muslims, also known as Maulidur Rasul or Mawlid. The send their blessings to Prophet Muhammad through recitations of praise and blessings. Celebrated in almost all Islamic countries, traditional poems about his life are recited in mosques and at home. In some places, a carnival with large street processions is held. Charity contributions and food are distributed and stories about the life of the Prophet are narrated with poetry recitations by children.
In Singapore, celebrations are held at mosques and community organisations.
DEEPAVALI – FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
The festival gets it name from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that Hindus light outside their homes to symbolise the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness. Several myths are associated with the festival, with the common theme of good triumphing over evil.
For South Indians, Deepavali is associated with Lord Krishna killing demon king Narakasura in battle. The latter’s rule was oppressive and his slaying was seen as the dispelling of darkness and the welcoming of light.
For North Indians, Deepavali is linked to a myth from the Indian epic Ramayana, which tells the story of Lord Rama of Ayodhya, a most just prince, exiled to the forest for 14 years just before he took the throne. After rescuing his kidnapped wife Sita and defeating demon king Ravana, Lord Rama returned with her and his brother Lakshmana to his kingdom.
Preparations for Deepavali begin long before the actual day with the cleaning of the home, purchase of new clothes and the preparation of sweet and savoury snacks. Doorways of homes are decorated with oil lamps made of clay – deepas or diyas – and kolam or rangoli designs. On the morning of Deepavali, many Hindus arise much before sunrise, take oil baths and pray for a bright future. New clothes are donned, representing a fresh start. The colours are bright, lamps are lit, and thanksgiving prayers and pujas are performed before the family shrine. Younger members prostrate themselves before their elders to receive blessings. Families head for the temples to offer prayers, then visit relatives and friends. Special meals are prepared.
In Singapore, crowds throng Little India in Serangoon Road, browsing and purchasing textiles, clothes, flowers, gold jewelry, decorative items for the home, garlands, lights, lamps, festive goodies and sweetmeats. Many households prepare their own treats such as murukku, laddu and mysore pak.
Little India is decoratively lit in the month leading up to the festival. There are other celebrations such as a countdown concert, a heritage and craft exhibition and a festival village.
CHRISTMAS – MARKING THE BIRTH OF CHRIST
Christians around the world celebrate the day on which Jesus Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Angels proclaimed his birth to shepherds who spread the news. The Christ-child would grow up to become a teacher and healer before he was placed on trial and put to death by crucifixion. Christianity believes he was born to save mankind from their sins.
Christmas, the culmination of the 4 preceding weeks of Advent – is one of the high points of the Christian liturgical year. The season of Christmastide lasts until Candlemas on February 2nd, when Jesus was presented at the temple to complete his mother Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth.
Billions of Christians worldwide attend vigil services in churches where prayers, hymns and traditional carols are sung.
Christmas has the distinction of being a major religious festival that is also celebrated culturally by many non-Christians. Celebratory customs combine a mix of the sacred and secular, including gifts and carolling. In Singapore, a staple is the Orchard Road Christmas Light-up, a crowd-puller that began in 1984.
NEW YEAR’S EVE – COUNTING DOWN TO A NEW YEAR
Celebrated around the world, the countdown to a new year is often celebrated with fireworks. As it is in Singapore. The Marina Bay Area features a variety of light shows and projection displays on skyline icons like The Fullerton Hotel.
The pyrotechnic display is visually spectacular (and photographers mark out their spots much before it happens) and parties in nightspots and in homes last into the early hours of the new year.
‘Extra flares’ can be seen off East Coast Beach where ships that line the Singapore Strait fire flares in an age-old maritime tradition.