Malaysia's most popular festivities

Pat Fama
Yahoo! Malaysia Editorial

Malaysia is one of the most ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse countries in the world. All this diversity means a huge array of festivals, many of them colourful spectacles, every year. What follows is a description of the main festivals during 2013.

Thaipusam (January 27)

For sheer spectacle, nothing matches the festival of Thaipusam, which commemorates the victory of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan over a powerful demon. The largest and most spectacular celebrations outside Indi, take place in and around Kuala Lumpur - the highlight of which is a procession to the Hindu temple complex at Batu Caves. Many of the devotees are either giving thanks for a past or future favour, or doing penance, for a misdeed.

Chinese New Year (February 10)

Also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, it marks the start of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The celebrations last for 15 days, culminating in the Lantern Festival, known locally as Chap Goh Mei. Rituals associated with the festival  include a thorough spring clean; a New Year's Eve family reunion dinner; giving ang pows (red envelopes wish cash inside); making offerings to ancestors; lighting incense at temples; fireworks and firecrackers; and lion and dragon dances.

Easter (March 31)

For many Christians, Easter is the most important festival of the year, as it marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is preceded by a six week period known as Lent, when members of various denominations fast or give up luxuries, as a form of penitence. Easter is followed by a 50-day period, known as Eastertide, which culminates in Pentecost or Whitsun, commemorating the effective start of Christianity as a religion.

Vaisakhi (April 14)

This is the Sikh New Year, as well as an ancient Punjabi harvest festival. Vaisakhi is also a collective birthday, commemorating the foundation in 1699 of the Khalsa (Sikh brotherhood). Prayer meetings are held at gurdwaras (Sikh temples) to mark the three-day festival, with religious songs and discourses too. Sikhs celebrate roughly 40 other festivals every year, including one honouring each of their ten Gurus.

Kaamatan (May-June)

This is the most important festival of the year for the Kadazan-Dusun (indigenous) peoples of Sabah. At its core it is a thanksgiving celebration for the rice harvest, but it also has elements of spiritual renewal and purification. Widespread conversion to Christianity and Islam has seen the gradual disappearance of animist rituals formerly associated with Kaamatan.

Wesak (May 24)

Commemorating the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death, this is the most important festival of the year for Malaysian Buddhists. Many practices are associated with Wesak, including charitable donations and other acts of kindness; lighting candles, incense and joss sticks at temples; meditating on the Eight Precepts (core beliefs of Buddhism); and eating vegetarian food.

Gawai Dayak (June 1)

This is a collective harvest celebration of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, and has both religious and cultural elements. Practices vary between communities, but often include ceremonies to appease spirits; offerings to ancestors; cleaning and decorating homes;    drinking special rice wine known as tuak; and traditional music and dancing.

Hungry Ghost (August, exact dates not confirmed yet)

Another important Chinese celebration, this festival marks the time every year when restless spirits are believed to roam the earth. During Hungry Ghost, offerings are made to ancestors, including food and drink, and symbolic paper money, which is believed to have value in the underworld. A particular feature in Malaysia, are entertainment shows known as Koh-tai, where the front seats are left empty for ghosts.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri (August 8)

The Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr - known in Malaysia as Hari Raya Aidilfitri - marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The festival begins with special prayers in mosques, as well as visits to cemeteries to pay respect to departed loved ones. Many people host "open house" feasts during Hari Raya, where friends and family gather together to celebrate. Buying (and wearing) new clothes is also a feature of the festival.

Mid-Autumn Festival (September 19)

After Lunar New Year, this is most important occasion for Malaysia’s Chinese community. An ancient harvest festival, it falls on the brightest full moon of the year. The origins of the festival are at least three thousand years old, and tied to the worship of the Moon Goddess, Chang'e. Family outings to look at the moon, and burning incense for Chang'e, are part of the festivities, as is eating special round cakes, known as "mooncakes".

Hari Raya Aidiladha (October 15)

Known as the Festival of Sacrifice, this commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail to God. It is also called Hari Raya Haji in Malaysia, as it marks the culmination of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Apart from special prayer services, it is often celebrated with "open house" feasts for friends and family. 

Deepavali (November 3)

For Hindus, the most important religious event of the year is Diwali, the Festival of Light. Known as Deepavali in Malaysia, the five day event celebrates the victory of good over evil, and light over darkness. The third day of Deepavali marks the official start of the Hindu New Year. Public ceremonies associated with the festival including processions, special bazaars, and firework displays.

Kathina (November 5)

This festival marks the end of the three month long rainy season retreat by Buddhist monks, known as Vassa. During the retreat, monks stay within their monastery or temple, and give themselves over to reflection. Often referred to as Buddhist Lent, it is a time when some lay worshipers choose to abstain from meat, alcohol and smoking. The Kathina ceremony involves devotees making offerings to monks, such as new robes.

Christmas (December 25)

For the majority of locals, this festival is an excuse to go shopping, but for Malaysia’s Christian community, it is an important religious occasion. Ways to observe the festival, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, differ greatly between the various denominations. Some even celebrate the festival in January rather than December. That said, many churches have a special Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.