Chinese Lion and Dragon DanceHarvest FestivalKadazan FestivitiesFestivals

Chinese New Year


The Origin

Chinese New Year is called the Lunar New Year, as it is the first day of the lunar calendar. It is also referred to as the Spring Festival since it is the beginning of the spring term, which is the first of the 24 terms on the lunar calendar.


It has been recorded that the Chinese started to celebrate Chinese New Year from about 2000 BC, though the celebrations were held at different times under various emperors. They started celebrating Chinese New Year on the first day of the lunar calendar based on Emperor Wu Di's almanac of the Han Dynasty.

According to legend, the celebration of Chinese New Year originates from a time of peril caused by a beast known as Nian. Each year, Nian devoured people on New Year’s Day till an old man found a way to quell this horrible monster. Henceforth, people started to observe and celebrate Chinese New Year. The term "Guo Nian", which means, “pass or survive the Nian” has been commonly used to refer to the Chinese New Year ever since.

The Celebration

On the eve of the New Year, all family members, including those away from home, are expected to gather for the annual reunion dinner.


The first day of the New Year is usually spent visiting close family members and relatives. It is the practice of elders and married couples to give children Ang Pow – little red packets containing ‘lucky money’. This custom supposedly bestows good luck on both the giver and the recipient for the coming year. There are also taboos and superstitions for Chinese New Year. Meals served on the first day are generally vegetarian as serving meat of slaughtered animals is considered bad luck. The use of knives and scissors would mean cutting off good luck, just as the use of brooms would mean sweeping away the good luck. Any white items are shunned as white denotes bereavement and is deemed inauspicious.


On the second day, families gather to “open the new year”; While at work, bosses treat their employees to a dinner. In Malaysia, this is a time when Chinese bosses give bonuses to employees, regardless of race.


The third day is called the ‘Squabble Day’ and it is said that if one visits a friend on this day, one would quarrel or squabble with that person during the year.


Traditionally, the God of Wealth is welcomed into the household on the fifth day so as to ensure good fortune all year round.


The seventh day, said to be the day mankind was created, is deemed “Everyone’s Birthday”. The Cantonese, mainly in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Singapore, observe this ‘raw and fresh creation’ by eating raw fish salad called Yee Sang.


The eighth and ninth day are devoted to the worship of the God of Heaven and the Jade Emperor. Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy’ is also offered prayers on New Years Eve, the 9th day and the 15th day of the first moon. The New Years Celebrations culminate on the 15th day with Shang Yuan Jie, the Taoist festival that honours the Lords of Heaven, Earth and Water.

Chinese Traditions


1. Preparation

Usually the preparation starts a month before the New Year. The preparation includes thoroughly cleaning and decorating the house, buying new clothes and preparing enough food for at least two weeks. Decorations are highly symbolic with a lot of lucky words, printed paintings and red colours everywhere. Meanwhile, children would be busy shopping for different kinds of firecrackers. Everyone gets a haircut before the New Year so that everything and everyone looks fresh on the New Year.

2. New Year’s Eve

This is the time for family reunion. The New Year’s Eve Dinner is the biggest dinner of the year, much like Thanksgiving dinner. It is full of symbolic meaning, such as Chinese dumplings implying wealth since they have the shape of ancient Chinese gold or silver ingots. Everyone, even children, drink a little Jiu (hard liquor), which symbolizes longevity since Jiu has the same pronunciation as longevity in Chinese. Then family members chat while watching Chinese New Year shows or listening to radio programmes together until the coming of the New Year. In China, famous entertainers collaborate for months to prepare Chinese New Year TV Programmes.

3. Firecrackers

Firecrackers are set off as soon as the New Year arrives. Firecrackers are seen and heard everywhere and this usually lasts for a few hours. Some people continue to play firecrackers occasionally throughout the first half of the first month. Traditionally firecrackers are the sign of getting rid of the old and welcoming the new. Fireworks are now banned in China, making this tradition no longer practiced.

4. Red Packets

Giving Red Packets [Ang Pows] is another Chinese New Year tradition. A Red packet is simply a red envelope with money in it, which symbolizes luck and wealth. Red packets are typically handed out to younger generations by their parents, grandparents, relatives, and even close neighbours and friends.

5. New Year Greetings

Chinese New Year is also the time for socializing. People usually don new apparels to visit and greet their relatives and friends. Consequently, the streets are filled with cheerful souls. The greetings and visits go on for a few days.


6. Dragon and Lion Dance

Dragon and Lion dances are one of the highlights Chinese New Year celebrations.

Lions are traditionally regarded as a guardian creature. The Lion Dance usually consists of two people. The pair of dancers, forming the back and fore legs of the lion, mimics the motions of a single animal as they move between platforms of varying elevations. The dance is traditionally accompanied by gongs, drums and firecrackers, representing the descent of good luck.


The Dragon Dance features a team of around ten or more dancers. The lead dancers lift, dip, thrust, and sweep the head, which may contain animated features controlled by a dancer and is sometimes rigged to belch smoke from pyrotechnic devices. Dragons are believed to bring good luck to people. It is reflected in their qualities that include power, dignity, wisdom and auspiciousness.

Hari Raya Aidil Fitri


The Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is a celebration for Muslims. It signifies the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The celebration is determined by sighting of the new moon on the day before the next month on the Muslim calendar, Syawal. The words ‘Hari Raya’ mean 'day of celebration.' Before Muslims start their celebration, they have to fast for one-month 


from dawn till sunset and this period is named Ramadan. During the period of fasting, apart from eating and drinking, Muslims are also forbidden from smoking and having sexual relations. Only the sick can be excused from fasting. Muslims start the day by wearing new clothes and congregating in the mosques early in the morning to perform Hari Raya Puasa prayers. Then, they visit the graves of the departed. The young will ask for forgiveness from their elder. Other than that, Muslims have open houses for relatives and friends to come to their house. Plenty of traditional Malay delicacies are served during this festive season. Houses are thoroughly cleaned and decorated; lighting of oil lamps welcomes the angels which are believed to be visiting the earth during the seven days preceding the festival. The celebration lasts for a month but most of the celebration is concentrated in the first three days. Some favorite dishes that can be found in Muslims homes on this special occasion are ketupat, lontong, nasi padang and beef rendang. The Muslims also give packets of money to the children when they go visiting. The packets are usually green in color and children often look forward to getting these money tokens on Hari Raya Puasa. Overall, Hari Raya Puasa is a joyous occasion for Muslims. 



Diwali, also called Deepavali or Divali, is a major Hindu festival that is very significant in Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. Known as the "Festival of Lights," it symbolises the victory of good over evil, and lamps are lit as a sign of celebration and hope for mankind. Celebrations focus on lights and lamps, particularly traditional dīpa (earthen lamp). Fireworks are associated with the festival. Diwali is a colloquial name used in North India, while the festival is formally called Deepavali (dīpa meaning lamp + oli meaning light), and is called in South India as such.



The Thaipusam is celebrated by Hindus on the tenth month of their calendar. It coincides with the full moon at the end of January and beginning of February.  ‘Thai’ is the Hindu month which falls in between January 15 to February 15. ‘Pusam’ refers to a star which is at its brightest during the period of this festival. Thaipusam celebrates the day Goddess Parvati bestowed upon her son the ‘vel’ or lance to vanquish the evil demon, Soorapadam. This lance denotes spiritual insight, ability to differentiate right from wrong, righteousness and steadfastness. However, for many Hindus, Thaipusam has come to

Goddess Parvati

In Malaysia, Deepavali is celebrated as the day the evil Narakasura was slain by Lord Krishna, signifying the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. The mood starts a month beforehand with the preparation of the various arrays of Indian cookies such as Murukku, Ommapadi, Chippi, Atharasum, Nei Orundei and the wall breaker Kallu Orundei. Of course, there is the inevitable shopping and work to be done to make sure everything is new and clean, from curtains to clothes for family members. Normally on Deepavali eve, Padayai or offerings and prayers are made to ancestors and deceased family members. After this ceremony, the women will be busy in the kitchen while the rest of the family will decorate the house by hanging new curtains, placing new settee covers and the so on to welcome Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity. 


On Deepavali Day, they have to get up early before sunrise, apply oil on their heads and take a bath. This ritual oil bath is known as "Ganga-Snanam" and is done to cleanse one of the impurities of the past year. Prayers are held at the family altar, after the family gathers before the elders to receive their blessings.


Most Indians in Malaysia are South Indian Hindus in origin. Here, even though Deepavali is known as the festival of lights, there are no oil lamps being lit. Instead, it is only done on another religious festival called Karthigal Villaku that comes about a month later. The happiest celebrants are, of course, the children who gleefully collect yellow packets with money in them - a mutation of the Chinese ang pow. Revellers try to squeeze the month-long festivities into a day of public holiday and four to five days of leave from work.

mean the birthday of Lord Subramaniam, also known as lord Muruga, the younger son of Lord Shiva. Leading up to the event, Hindus prepare themselves by fasting, praying and observing austerities. On the eve of the celebration, Lord Muruga’s image is decorated with diamonds, rubies and other jewels. The Idols together with those of his two consorts Valli and Deivayani represent the spiritual and worldly energies (shakti), is placed on a bed of flowers with burning incense on the sides. In the wee hours of the morning, the five-tonne chariot is pulled by two bulls and hundred of devotees on its 15 km journey from Chinatown to Batu Caves. The procession weaves through major streets of the city and takes about 8 hours to reach its destination. A prayer ceremony is held at the foot of the caves and the flag of Lord Muruga is hoisted to announce the commencement of the celebrations. Devotees carry offerings and climb the 272 steps to the main cave to seek forgiveness for past deeds or to thank Lord Muruga for wishes granted. The offerings are such as kavadi which is a wooden arch with 2 pots of or honey at its end and decorated with peacock feathers and bearing a pot of milk up to the shrine.



Held annually on Dec 25th, Christians celebrate the Nativity, or the birth of Christ. The origin of this festival is obscure and scholars believe that it is derived in part from rites held by pre-Christian Germanic and Celtic peoples to celebrate winter solstice. The origin of the Christmas tree began early in the 17th century, in Strasbourg, France, spreading to Germany and then into northern Europe. In 1841 Albert, Prince consort of Queen

Victoria  introduced the Christmas tree custom to Great Britain. From there the tradition accompanied immigrants to the U.S. Meanwhile, Dutch settlers had brought to the New World the custom of celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, and especially, St. Nicholas Eve, when gifts were given to children of whom the saint was patron. Carolling practice begins in the middle of December with carollers going from house-to-house one week before Christmas in their respective zones. There is also someone along dressed up as Santa Claus and handing out sweets to the young ones. After services, everyone wishes each other "Merry Christmas". Some go home, while others go party elsewhere. In most Christian homes, it is a tradition to say a short prayer before doing anything else. After the prayers most families have wine and fruit cake to toast Christmas. After this, gifts are exchanged and they snap plenty of photos of the person opening the gifts.

Tadau Ka'amatan


In the month of May, Sabahans celebrate the Kadazan Harvest Festival. Even though it is named after the major indigenous tribe who form the largest ethnic group in Sabah (the Kadazans), the solemnity is observed by every Sabah native. The Kadazan Harvest Festival is locally known as ‘Tadau Ka'amatan’.

The Kadazans believe in the worship of ancient gods and the existence of five main spirits, Kinoingan - the Almighty God and Creator, Rusad - the spirit of all living things and animals other than man, Koududuvo - the spirit of the living, Tombivo - the ghostly spirit of the dead and Rogon - the evil spirit.

According to popular belief, the spirit of the paddy plant is said to be part of the Kinoingan - commonly known as the Bambaazon, who is revered as the overall creator, an omnipotent source of life and existence. The rice spirit Bambaazon is therefore revered in the rice plant, the rice grain and the cooked rice. Many believe that ‘Without rice, there is no life’.

During this festival, Sabah natives wear their traditional costumes and enjoy a carnival atmosphere that stretches from daybreak till dawn. ‘Tapai’ or homemade rice wine is served as the speciality for the day. Sabahans are greeted with a special greeting for the harvest festival known as ‘Kopivosian Tadau Ka'amatan’ or ‘Happy Harvest Festival’.

Fifth Moon / Dragon Boat Festival


In summer, Chinese communities living in coastal and riverine areas throughout the world observe the fifth moon of the lunar calendar with rice dumplings and dragon boat races. Known as the Patriotic Poet’s Festival, it honours the statesman-scholar Qu Yuan, who in 278 BC drowned himself to protest corruption in the government. As a former minister, he was banished through political intrigue. He wrote two famous odes before jumping into the water. Legend says the fishermen tried to save him to no avail. To prevent fishes from devouring his corpse, rice was thrown in to feed them. This ritual is held every fifth day of the fifth moon in remembrance of him. Around 40 BC, fishermen placed rice in bamboo tubes for fear that the river dragon would eat the food meant as homage to the dead poet. By the Tang Dynasty (AD 265 – 419), triangular cakes were made for the mid-summer solstice to commemorate both the first harvest of the year and Qu Yuan’s death.

Statesman-scholar Qu Yuan

Gawai Dayak


Gawai Dayak is celebrated by the Dayak, which generally refers to the Iban, Bidayuh and the Orang Ulu communities in Sarawak. This harvest festival gives thanks to the gods and spirits for the bounty of the land. With centuries of tradition behind it, this native ritual involves communication with the spirit world, ancestral worship and feasting with friends and family of the whole community. It is celebrated mid year on June 1 and 2, though unofficially the festivities begin during the last week of May and continue through mid-June. Usually, the people of many longhouses harvest their rice fields well before the big day and have their own small scale Gawai feast at the end of their harvests. The elders perform traditional rites, everyone dresses in their traditional costumes and there is food and drink. Tuak, rice wine, and an array of traditional food are generously served along the ruai (veranda), and bilik (room), in every longhouse. Widespread celebrations are held not only in the main cities and towns but also in the interior settlements.

Dayak DanceIn native dress

Gawai is an occasion for parties, fun and games, processions and ‘open houses’. At rural dwellings, especially in roadside villages and remote villages, guests are expected to taste tuak and eat at each household. Thus in a 30 door longhouse with a family living behind each door, it means partaking in festivities over and over again. Music and dancing usually follow to liven up the mood. In Kuching, celebrations start a week before with colourful street parades and cultural activities. On the eve of the Gawai, a grand state dinner is held at the Civic Centre with singing, dancing and a beauty pageant which culminates in the crowning of several Gawai Queens, one each for Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu communities. Obviously, Gawai Dayak is the best and the most interesting time to visit Sarawak as you can see and sample the lifestyle and its festivities. All visitors are warmly received and accepted as new friends even if they happen to be strangers.

Thai Pongal


The four days of Pongal have individual significance. Held in the middle of January, Pongal continues through the first four days of the Thai month that starts in the mid-January. The word Pongal literally means "boiling over" and is celebrated by Hindus to mark the harvesting of the bounteous crops in the fields. The houses are cleaned, painted and decorated and Kolam's (ground patterns made out of rice flour) are made in the front yards of the houses. The day begins with the making of Kolams at the entrance of homes, as early as possible, in the morning. It is auspicious to draw the Kolams before sunrise so that the sun god can see them and come to bless the particular household. Every household prides itself on making the most exquisite floor drawings outside their homes. These patterns drawn with rice flour, dyed in brilliant hues is an art handed down from one generation to the other. Kolams, generally drawn with rice flour, are special to the occasion. The idea behind using rice flour is that the insects would feed on it and bless the household. Sweet rice, known as Pongal, is cooked in a new earthenware pot at the same place where puja is to be performed. Fresh turmeric and ginger are tied around this pot. Then a delicious concoction of rice, moong dal, jaggery and milk is boiled in the pot on an open fire. This Pongal, according to ritual, is allowed to boil and spill out of the pot. Once the Pongal is ready it is tempered with cashew nuts and raisins fried in ghee. Pongal, once ready, is offered to God first, on a new banana leaf along with other traditional delicacies like vadas, payasam, etc. On the first day, homes are washed and decorated. On this day Bhogi (Rain God) is worshipped.

Pongal, known as Sweet rice, is cooked in a new earthenware pot

Like many other Indian festivals, Pongal also has a few interesting legends attached to it signifying the importance it holds. The most popular legend is the one connected to the first day of the Pongal celebration when the Rain God, Bhogi or Indra is worshipped. According to the legend, on this day Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger to shelter his people and save them from being washed away by the rains and floods. Another legend is associated with the third day of Pongal celebration, also known as Mattu Pongal. According to it, Lord Shiva once asked Nandi, his bull, to go to earth and deliver his message to the people - to have an oil bath every day, and food once a month. But Nandi got it all mixed up when he delivered the message, and told the people that Shiva asked them to have an oil bath once a month, and eat every day. Shiva was displeased, and told Nandi that since the people would now need to grow more grain, Nandi would have to remain on earth and help them plough the fields. Mattu Pongal is also called Kanu Pongal, and women pray for the welfare of their brothers.



The Melanau community festival or Kaul appeases the spirits of the sea, land, forests and farm celebrates the end of the rainy season and the start of the fishing season in late March or early April. The festival is celebrated on different days in the many Melanau settlements along the coast. The Tibou, a death defying 20-foot high swing, is one of the highlights of Kaul. Youths dive from a high bamboo scaffolding and catch a swinging liana rope as it reaches the height of its arc. First one, then two and eventually eight young men hanging in a clump from the giant swing as it soars above the beach.


Bapa Kaul or leader of the ceremony invokes the spirits and pours water over the offerings

However, Kaul is about more than giant swings. It’s a colourful festival with a flotilla of highly decorated boats, beach games and lots of delicious Melanau food. Traditionally, during the monsoon, the river mouths were closed. Villages would be taboo for days before Kaul. No one was allowed to leave or enter, and people underwent purification ceremonies during Kaul. At the start of Kaul, the highly decorated fishing boats move down river carrying the seraheng, a flat round basket raised on a bamboo pole. It is placed on a riverbank while the Bapa Kaul (leader of the ceremony) invokes the spirits and pours water over the offerings. In the past, the sick and elderly would gather by the seraheng so that the water poured on the offerings would fall on them and wash away all evil. Today the ceremony is of social rather than religious significance. After the ceremony, there are games on the beach, displays of Melanau martial arts, dancing and eating. The festivities do not stop with sunset, they just move to the Melanau houses built on rivers and streams where there are cultural performances and non-stop feasting. The attractive native dwellings give the fishing villages near Mukak the air of a bamboo Venice and their hospitality is legendary.

The Sect of the Jiu Wang Yeh is dedicated to the nine sons of Tien Hou or Queen of Heaven (also known as Tou Mu, the Goddess of the North Star), believed to be in control of the Books of Life and Death. Her nine sons, known as the Nine Emperor Gods, are worshipped as patrons of prosperity, wealth and good health on their own right, especially in Fujian and Guangdong Provinces in southern China, a region also known for its ancient sacred rites of spirit mediumship. Worshippers of Jiu Hwang Yeh Sect believe that the Nine Emperor Gods visit the worshippers every year on this day for nine days, and during the duration of the visit, the Gods have to be entertained with traditional opera and dances. It is also an occasion to declare one’s religious devotion and piety so that wishes and favours would be granted for the coming year. The festival is celebrated over the first nine days of the ninth moon in the Chinese lunar calendar. Devotees flock to the temples throughout the country for this religious festival. On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the Deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the ‘Jiu Hwang Yeh’. Since the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea-shore or river to symbolise this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying joss-sticks and candles await the arrival of their “Excellencies”. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival. During this period of time, the constant chiming of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, take vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayers. A procession to send the Nine Emperor Gods home then takes place to complete the rites of this religious festival. To welcome the Nine Emperors, mediums wielding axes and swords will perform evening rituals on odd numbered days. The spirits of the gods are entertained in the temple grounds with Chinese opera performances and fire-walking sessions. The Nine Emperors are the Chinese version of Robin Hood, who during the Qing dynasty robbed the rich and gave to the poor. According to legend, they were cornered at a seaside by soldiers, but a giant red turtle came to their rescue and ferried them to safety on Tow Boo Keong Island.

Nine Emperor Gods Festival


Taoism is the ancient indigenous religion of China. Its ideas were first propagated and written by the Shang Dynasty philosopher, Laozhi, 2500 years ago. Taoism gave the world concepts of ying and yang. Taoists believe in the importance of harmony between people, and between human and nature. In addition to the philosophy of life and death as well as morality and nature, an extensive an extensive pantheon of gods and demigods exists in Taoism.