32 UNMISSABLE CULTURAL HOLIDAYS & FESTIVALS IN ASIA
Experience colourful celebrations and participate in cultural holidays during one of Asia's traditional festivals.
Millions of people around the world gather on 31 December to celebrate the new year. We reminisce on the old year and make wishes for the new one, popping champagne and sharing a kiss as the clock strikes 12.
It’s a magical night of optimism, renewal and spending time with loved ones - but it doesn’t have to end on 1 January.
While most of the world runs on the Gregorian calendar, there are many cultures around the world who use lunar, solar and historical calendars to tell time.
With so many countries celebrating New Year’s Day in different months, you can keep the festivities going all through the year.
Below are ten new year celebrations that are held on a different day to 1 January.
The Old New Year is celebrated as the start of the new year according to the Julian calendar. Also known as the Orthodox New Year, it’s traditionally celebrated across Russia and Eastern Europe, hailing from a time when these countries used the Julian calendar.
In Macedonia, the holiday is known as the Old New Year or Vasilica. People gather in their neighbourhoods to drink, eat and sing traditional music around huge bonfires.
It’s custom to make a homemade pita with a single coin inside. Everyone gathers around to eat the pita and whoever finds the coin will have luck during the year.
In Serbia, it’s commonly known as the Serbian New Year and is celebrated with fireworks, music and feasting. Similar festivities are held in Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Belarus, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
You’ll also find celebrations in Belarus, Moldova, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Palestine, Ukraine (known as Malanka) and Switzerland (known as alter Silvester).
The people of Gwaun Valley in Pembrokeshire, Wales, celebrate the Old New Year on 13 January, while in Scotland, the Old New Year is held on 12 January.
It’s known as Oidhche Challaig or Oidhche Challainn in some areas, and the town of Burghead in Morayshire celebrates the Old New Year with The Burning o' the Clavie.
A bonfire is lit from a collection of casks filled with tar. When the burning barrel begins to crumble, people race to get a burning peace to light their New Year’s fire in their own hearth. The charcoal is collected to keep spirits and witches coming down the cottage chimneys.
The Lunar New Year is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in the world.
Predominantly celebrated in Asian cultures, the Lunar New Year begins on the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends 15 days later, on the first full moon of the lunar calendar.
The dates vary each year, but always fall between 21 January and 20 February on the Gregorian calendar.
It’s most famously celebrated in China and in Chinese communities around the world, and is known as the Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival.
In China, mass festivities are held for 15 days, concluding with the Lantern Festival. You’ll see dazzling lantern displays, fireworks and colourful dragon and lion dances moving to loud beating drums to scare away the evil spirits.
Married couples present red envelopes filled with money to younger members of the family, and delicious treats such as niangao (a new year cake) and jiaozi (dumplings) are shared around.
The Chinese New Year in 2019 will ring in the Year of the Pig, a year of good fortune and luck, symbolizing compassion, diligence and generosity.
The Lunar New Year is also celebrated in many other southeast Asian countries who follow the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, although each culture celebrates differently.
In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is known as Tết Nguyên Đán (called Tết for short). The Vietnamese prepare for the new year with deep spring cleaning, then celebrate with huge parades, family reunions and ancestral worship.
They cook traditional food such as dried young bamboo soup and sticky rice, and children receive money in red envelopes.
One of the most important rituals is the act of the first person entering a house on Tết. The Vietnamese believe that the first visitor will dictate their fortune for the year, so you must never enter a house without being invited first.
Many homeowners will leave the house and enter at midnight to stop anyone else entering the house who bring bad luck.
The Korean New Year is known as Seollal and is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice (typically the same day as Chinese New Year). Celebrations last for three days, with family gatherings and ancestral offerings.
Koreans dress in colourful traditional clothing called the hanbok and after making the spiritual offerings, enjoy a big feast with new year foods such as tteokguk (soup with rice cakes) and jeon (savory pancake).
The Mongolian New Year is marked with greeting ceremonies, traditional dress and burning candles to symbolise Buddhist enlightenment. Known as Tsagaan Sar (White Moon), this lunar new year is celebrated by the Mongols and the people of the Arctic.
During the greeting ceremony, they perform the zolgokh greeting where people grasp their elders by their elbows to show support. Afterwards, the family gathers to eat traditional foods such as mutton, rice with curds, buuz, and sheep’s tail, drink airag and share gifts.
Losar is the Tibetan Buddhist New Year, celebrated in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Losar typically occurs on the same day as the Chinese New Year, but its ancient traditions are unique to Tibet.
They celebrate with auspicious signs such as the sun or moon, special foods such as sugarcane, green bananas and kapse (fried twists), and traditional decorations such as a sheep's head carved from colored butter (the words ‘sheep’s head’ and ‘beginning of the year’ are similar in Tibetan).
The Balinese New Year is a Hindu celebration mainly observed in Balinese and Javanese cultures. It marks the first day of the Saka calendar and is celebrated with a ‘Day of Silence’.
In stark contrast to many other new year celebrations around the world, Nyepi is a day for silence, rest, meditation and fasting.
From 6am to 6pm the following morning, everything shuts down. The streets are empty and there is no work, entertainment, talking, eating and lighting must be kept low. Even the airport in Bali is closed for the day, although exceptions are made for emergency vehicles.
Ugadi is usually celebrated in India around the same day as Nyepi. It’s the start of the new year for the people of Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, who follow the Hindu lunisolar calendar.
Nowruz literally translates to ‘new day’ and marks the vernal equinox - the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Also known as the Persian New Year, Nowruz is the first day in the Iranian solar calendar.
It’s one of the most ancient festivals in the world, celebrated for around 4,000 years by millions of people across Iran, Afghanistan and other parts of western and central Asia.
Nowruz celebrations last for 13 days and include preparations of spring cleaning and buying new clothes, followed by family feasting and gift giving to herald in the new year.
Many countries in south and southeast Asia observe their New Year based on the sun’s entry to the constellation Aries, which usually happens around 14 April.
Influenced by the Hindu calendar, these cultures follow the sidereal year, based on the movement of the sun in relation to the stars.
In Thailand, the new year is called Songkran, celebrated on 13 April. The period is marked with cleansing rituals, including washing all the statues and images of Buddha for good fortune.
There’s also the famous water festival, where roads are closed and people take to the streets with buckets, water guns and hoses to soak each other. It’s a joyous occasion and the water symbolises the hope for rainfall throughout the year.
Thingyan is the Burmese New Year, celebrated in Myanmar. As a Buddhist festival, the celebrations include Buddhist offerings and cleansing Buddhist images. It’s celebrated for four or five days around 14 April each year with much fanfare.
Similar to Songkran, revellers take to the streets for a giant water festival, with water throwing, music, singing and dancing.
There are parades of decorative floats topped with orchestras and cultural performances. People also wear Padauk blooms in the hair, as they only bloom for one day each year during Thingyan.
In Laos, the new year celebration is called Pi Mai or Songkran, and follows similar traditions to the Thai and Burmese New Year.
They celebrate a three day festival around 14 April, throwing flour or white powder along with the traditional water fight. Other customs include building decorative sand stupas for monks and setting animals free to make merit.
The Khmer New Year in Cambodia is also celebrated with a three-day festival. Beginning on 13 April in 2019, the date is based on the end of the harvest and the Buddhist calendar.
It’s marked with traditional games, worship ceremonies, contributing to charity, and symbolic practices such as washing Buddhist statues.
Nepal celebrates Nepal Sambat (Nepali New Year’s Day) around mid-April, in accordance with their national lunar calendar.
The Nepali celebrate with purifying ceremonies, prayers and temple worship, along with parades and lively processions of traditional music and costumes.
They also play traditional games and sports such as Bisket Jatra, a festival where a game of tug of war is held between two communities of Bhaktapur. The festival commemorates the memory of the Mahabharat battle and whoever wins is believed to have good fortune for the coming year.
Sri Lanka celebrates Aluth Avurudda (the Sinhalese New Year) and Puthandu (the Tamil New Year), which both fall around mid-April.
Aluth Avurudda marks the end of the harvest season and when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka, while Puthandu is always held on 14 April in accordance with the solar calendar. Both are observed as time to spend with family, celebrated with house visits and feasting.
In India, you’ll find a huge array of New Year’s celebrations falling around 14 April.
The Sikh people celebrate Vaisakhi, the people of Kerala celebrate Vishu, while the Bengali celebrate Pahela Baishakh, also known as Bengali New Year. Festivities include singing, dancing, feasting and cultural performances.
The Basotho people of Lesotho and South Africa celebrate Selemo sa Basotho (Basotho New Year) on 1 August, in accordance with agricultural and natural cycles.
August (Phato) is the beginning of the year as this month marks the end of the dry winter and the beginning of new growth. The fields are ploughed and the first harvest is brought as an offering.
New crops are planted in anticipation for the spring bloom, when newborn animals frolic, crops grow tall, and cow’s milk overflows.
The Basotho celebrate their new year with traditional games, dress, feasts, parades and prayer rituals known as Thapelo ya Basotho.
The Islamic New Year is celebrated on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar. It also commemorates the journey of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina.
Also known as the Hijri New Year or the Arabic New Year, the holiday is the second holiest day in the Islamic calendar after Ramadan.
It is celebrated by Muslims around the world, from Morocco to Indonesia and is marked by prayer, fasting and quiet introspection.
In Ethiopia and Eritrea, the New Year is celebrated on Meskerem 1 on the Ethiopian Coptic calendar. This is usually 11 September, however in 2019 it will fall on 12 September, due to the leap year.
The Ethiopian calendar is derived from the Julian calendar, and the new year also marks the end of the wet season and the return of the Queen of Sheba after her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem in 980 BC.
Upon her return, the Queen’s chiefs welcomed her with jewels (enku), leading to the name Enkutatash, which means ‘gift of jewels’.
The three day Enkutatash celebration is filled with joyous rituals. It begins with colourful processions of young girls singing, drumming and dancing through the streets, carrying bright yellow flowers called adey abeba.
Families light huge bonfires and gather for dancing and prayer, while young boys create beautiful paintings and hand these out to family and friends.
They'll also gather in the home for feasts of traditional injera (flat bread) and doro wat (chicken stew). It’s also custom to hand out bouquets of flowers and exchange greeting cards.
Meaning ‘Head of the Year’, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, celebrated in Israel and around the world.
It’s a two-day holiday, held in September or October on the first two days of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.
It marks the end of the seven days of Creation and is a time of rejoicing and quiet introspection. Jewish people believe that through quiet observance, they are allowing God to decide their fate for the year.
The new year is marked with many special traditions such as sounding the shofar (ram’s horn) and shaking out your pockets in a body of water to cast out your sins.
It’s also custom to eat foods that hold special meaning such as leeks, beets, pomegranates and dates, as sweetness symbolises positivity.
An ancient tradition is to eat honey-covered apples followed by prayer, as it is believed that apples hold healing properties and honey brings hope for a sweet new year.
The Marwari and Gujarati communities in North India celebrate the beginning of their year in October or November, based on the Hindu lunar calendar. They celebrate by paying respect to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
Diwali, the Festival of Lights, coincides with this new year, and major celebrations are held in India and around the world.
The festival lasts for five days and is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. For many, Diwali is a time to pay tribute to Rama, the lord of virtue, who returned to his kingdom after 14 years of exile.
Revellers prepare for the festival by cleaning their homes and buying new clothes. During the festival, families gather to share gifts and traditional sweets, and the holiday is renowned for the spectacular firework displays that erupt around the country.
If you’d like to join in the New Year celebrations around the world, get in touch with our Luxury Travel Specialists to chat about your ideas, or fill out our inquiry form with details on your dream festive holiday.
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