If the Japanese celebrate the new year with bells, the Balinese celebrate it in silence. Most people on the Indonesian island of Bali follow an ancient form of Hinduism, brought from India centuries ago; and their new year, Nyepi, is based on a Hindu soli-lunar calendar. (Most other Balinese festivals follow a repeating 210-day cycle that has no connection to either the solar or the lunar year.) Nyepi is defined as the day after the new moon closest to the spring equinox. On Nyepi eve there is a lively festival, when people walk in procession, accompanied by gamelan music, to the main crossroads of their village. There they perform an exorcism ceremony to drive away evil, symbolized by huge monster-like paper-and-bamboo figurines. But on Nyepi itself, everything is silent. All over the island, streets are deserted. No fires are lit, no food is cooked, no music is played, and radios and televisions are turned off. It is forbidden to leave one’s house, to make love, or to talk more than necessary. Everyone welcomes the new year in silence, with reverent self-control.
Except for the Hindu Balinese, most Indonesians are Muslims, and many of them celebrate the new year on 1 Muharram, the first day of the first month of the Muslim calendar. For Sunni Muslims, this is a day for quiet celebration, and for reflecting on the significance of the Hegira, when the Prophet Mohammed temporarily moved from Mecca to Medina. That move established the first day of the first year of the Islamic lunar calendar (in the year 622 according to the Western calendar).
For Shiite Muslims, however, 1 Muharram is a day of mourning, marking the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein. Instead, many Shiites as well as people of other faiths in Iran and nearby areas influenced by Persian culture welcome the new year on Nowruz, the spring equinox. Nowruz actually is pre-Islamic in origin, being associated with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. In that faith, the conflict of good and evil is seen as a struggle of light to overcome darkness; thus the spring equinox, beginning the half-year in which daylight predominates over night, is an occasion of joyful celebration. The holiday season lasts for two weeks. On the Wednesday before the equinox, musicians perform in the streets, bonfires are lit, and children are given presents. Holiday tables, haftseen, are decorated with a candle, a copy of the Holy Qur’an, and an array of traditional foods with names beginning with the lucky letter “s.” At the exact moment of the spring equinox people exchange congratulations and good wishes. Customarily the first thing eaten after the moment of the equinox is an egg, symbol of new life.
These are only a few of Asia’s new year holidays; many other Asian countries and cultures also have distinctive festivals to welcome the new year. One of the pleasures of traveling in Asia is that the new year can be celebrated on so many days, and in so many different ways.