Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus celebrate the traditional Sinhalese New Year in April. The days are the same each year: the 13th and 14th of April. However, the times for certain ceremonies and many other details vary.
Why is the Sinhalese New Year celebrated in mid-April?
The aluth avurudda (New Year in Sinhalese) adheres to a lunar calendar. According to Sinhalese astrology, the time when the sun moves from the house of Pisces to the house of Aries marks the New Year. It coincides with the end of the harvest season.
Before the New Year
In the weeks and days leading up to event, Sri Lankans will do their own form of ‘spring cleaning’. Houses and homes are repaired, renovated, refurbished and redecorated, vigorously cleaned and painted. People buy themselves and each other new clothes during special sales. Old grudges are forgiven, forgotten ties renewed. In modern times, however, some of these traditions have been forsaken and it seems that shopping for clothes and presents is now the most important thing. On the days preceding the New Year, traditional sweetmeats like kokis and kevum are prepared. These vary in Sinhalese and Tamil households, though many prepare sweets from both ethnicities.
The day before the New Year (13th of April)
Almost everyone will take leave from work. Shops and offices close today or on the actual New Year day. The streets will be nearly deserted, although some people will use this last chance to run hurried errands or travel to their ancestral homes. On the last day of the old year, it is customary to bathe and to look at the moon at night.
Unlike the New Year celebrated all over the world according to the Gregorian calendar (with the old year ending on December 31st at midnight and the New Year dawning in the very next minute on January 1st), there is always a gap of a few hours between the end of the old year and the dawning of the new year. This time is called punya kalaya or nonagathe – neutral time – and is reserved for resting and fasting. For a certain amount of time, nobody will eat or drink anything (with the exception of infants, toddlers and sick people). Absolutely no form of work is allowed, be it housework or anything else. In the past – and still today in some villages and families – this time was used to socialize with the family and play traditional games, to listen to sermons and engage in religious activities or tell stories. Nowadays, everyone simply lazes around or is gathered around the television, as all stations will show live or pre-recorded programs pertaining to the New Year history and customs. Depending on the auspicious times each year, this time period might begin on the 13th and end on the 14th or cover several hours on the 14th itself.
Avurudu (the New Year on the 14th)
At a specific time declared by the responsible astrologers (all the dates and times are known weeks before the event already, so that everyone is prepared), the New Year dawns. People welcome it with fire crackers and cheering, sometimes also with the beating of drums. They wish each other and light oil lamps. It is customary for children – whether they are already adults or still young – to offer their parents betel leaves and worship them. The traditional wish in Sinhalese is “subha aluth avuruddak wewa”. After having wished the family and settled down, phone calls are made, and the ‘neutral time’ is broken.
Several minutes or hours after the dawning of the New Year, there is a specific time when to light a fire for the first time. Some choose the gas stove on which they cook, others prepare a fireplace out of stones and kindling. A clay pot is filled with milk and brought to boil over as an auspicious sign and symbol of prosperity. This is followed by enough time to prepare milk rice (kiribath) and condiments for the first meal of the New Year, with the first bite being taken at the preordained time. Often, the head of the household will feed the rest of the family a bite first. In many households, it is customary to go to the temple on the first day of the New Year.
After the New Year
Following the main event, there are several other customs and ceremonies associated with the Sinhalese New Year. There is a day and time to bathe for the first time after being anointed with a special mix of oil and herbs/leaves. There is also a day and time when to first go to office or start business again. In the days leading up to this, people will visit close friends and distant relatives as well as go on trips.
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