ASEAN New Year’s customs
he population of the 10 ASEAN countries is comprised of multiple ethnic groups. Therefore, it is no surprise that each country has a unique set of New Year’s traditions that are based on people’s religions, cultures, and lifestyles. One thing that holds true regardless of country is people’s hope for good luck and prosperity.By Cho Hyeon-sukTravel writer
Seeing how a country ushers in the new year allows us to learn many things about the identity of a nation or ethnicity. ASEAN is home to not only 900 ethnicities and their many religions, which include Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Taoism, but also differences in culture and ways of life. In Malaysia, New Year’s Day is celebrated several times due to the main ethnicities being Malay, Chinese, and Indian.
Celebrating the new year in January with food that brings good luck
In the Philippines, a circular shape is believed to bring fortune, which is why every January, families prepare 12 round items of fruit (one for each month) and wear polka-dot clothing. One popular New Year’s Day food is bibingka, a round cake made from glutinous rice and coconut that is shared by family members to strengthen bonds. A popular belief is that if you jump high into the air at midnight on the first day of the year, you will grow.
A typical Vietnamese New Year’s Day food is banh chung, or steamed squares of banana leaves that are stuffed with glutinous rice, pork, and mung bean. The simplicity of the ingredients for banh chung belies the effort required to prepare it, which takes over 12 hours. Malaysians and Singaporeans enjoy yee sang, a salad made with various vegetables, raw fish, and nuts. This is due to the belief that eating yee sang, whose name comes from the similar pronunciation of the Chinese character for “fish” with the character that means “leisure,” will make things go well for the rest of the year. After gathering before the dish, everyone shouts “Yee sang!” before eating the salad with chopsticks. It is said that the higher one lifts a bite of yee sang, the more peaceful and prosperous one’s family will be.
Celebrating the new year in April with dousings of good fortune
Customs are even more unique in countries that celebrate New Year’s Day as dictated by the Buddhist calendar. The most visible difference is the date: the first day of the Buddhist year is in mid-April, which marks the end of the dry season and the start of the rainy season in much of Southeast Asia and is therefore the hottest time of year. Buddhist New Year is held as a water festival of impressive scale to “wash” oneself of the previous year’s mistakes, bless the incoming year, and pray for a plentiful harvest. The festivities, of course, are accompanied by the sharing of traditional foods that help to beat the heat.
Thailand’s Songkran, which starts on April 13, is already globally famous. During Songkran, people eat khao chae, or jasmine rice in cold water, and khao niaow ma muang, a dessert that combines glutinous rice and mango. A popular food for Cambodia’s Choul Chnam Thmey, which falls on April 14, is kralan, which is made by baking bamboo sections that are stuffed with rice and coconut powder. Pi Mai, a three-day holiday that starts in Lao PDR on April 14, is celebrated with laap, a salad that mixes stir-fried glutinous rice and meat with herbs. During Thingyan, Myanmar’s four-day New Year’s celebration that starts on April 13, people enjoy mont-lone-yay-baw, or balls of glutinous rice that are mixed with coconut sugar and coconut pieces.
Water festivals, which vary slightly by country and region, are generally held for between three and seven days. On the first day, people visit a Buddhist temple to make an offering. This trip is usually followed by housecleaning or doing good for one’s community, and then by the most fun part of the festivities: sprinkling water on one another as a prayer for blessings.