New Year Celebrations x3 in Jogja, True Tolerance & Fire Crackers

Featured at Latitudes, January 2, 2011

Together with the rest of the world, Jogja just celebrated the coming of 2011. People thronged the streets and public spots with friends and family. Peddlers hawked on the sidewalks, selling food, trumpets, fireworks, and whatnot. Musical shows were held since early in the evening when people began to come out of their houses. As the clock struck twelve, big fireworks were lit to mark the transition of the year.

The festivities downtown were mirthful as always. Though, it was not the first New Year that we, Jogjanese, had celebrated last year.

Jogja is renowned for its cultural richness which makes it a tourist destination. Widely and administratively recognized as a sultanate under the formal name of Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat, the city in the south part of Java is home to a multicultural population. We have no less than three New Years to celebrate each year, as a consequence of people adopting different calendars. Besides the Gregorian New Year which falls every 1st of January, Jogjanese also celebrate Chinese and Javanese New Year. And while the first is more modern and global in fashion, the latter two are more traditional.

Imlek, Chinese New Year

Indonesians often refer to Chinese New Year as Imlek. Each year, it falls on another date in the Gregorian calendar, somewhere between 21 January and 20 February. In Jogja, the celebration is centered in Ketandan Chinatown, which sits downtown, and at nearby Poncowinatan Temple.

To celebrate the day, Jogjanese of Chinese descent join forces with the local government to organize various events from food bazars, karaoke competitions, fashion shows, a Poo Tay Hie puppet show, to a carnaval that also involves non-Chinese people and transsexuals. Of course the famous lion dance, Indonesians call it Barongsai, is featured on the streets on Cap Go Meh, the 15th day of the 1st month of Chinese calendar and the last day of the celebration. People will crowd the sidewalk watching the skillful dancers in action.

The history behind the celebration of Chinese New Year in Indonesia is an interesting one. As recorded, it was formerly forbidden by the absolute New Order government that reigned from 1965 to 1998, just as all other activities related to Chinese culture. It was not until President Abdurrahaman Wahid issued a presidential decree in 2000 to nullify the prejudicial regulation, that Chinese-Indonesians could come out and express their religious beliefs and culture in public again.

The late president, who was known as a pluralist Muslim leader, issued another decree a year later, that made Imlek a national holiday.

1 Suro, Javanese New Year

1 Suro is read as siji suro, meaning the 1st day of Suro month. The Javanese New Year coincides with Islamic New Year. Its history dates back to 1625 AD, when Sultan Agung, the 3rd King of Mataram, decided to replace the Hindu calendar with the lunar system of the Islamic Hijri calendar. At the time, the king was working hard to spread Islam so the change was certainly inspired by religious motives.

Despite the new system, the year number remained according to the Hindu calendar. When the change took place, it was 1035 Hijri, nonetheless, according to the Javanese calendar it was still 1547, following the Hindu year. Javanese New Year is not a consistent date in Gregorian calendar. It changes year after year.

Modern times have seen Jogjanese preserve traditions by performing cultural activities to celebrate the event. On New Year’s Eve, people will go out for laku bisu (Silent Walk) around the beteng (wall structure surrounding the royal palace complex) without talking, eating, drinking, or smoking. In doing so, they reflect their lives over the past year and pray for the year ahead.

Another custom is called labuhan, in which offerings are set adrift into the Indian Ocean. It is held at beaches like Ngrenehan, Parangkusumo, and Parangtritis by the Royal Family as well as common people, as an expression of gratitude to God and prayer for a good year ahead. The ritual also represents fishermen’s wish to appease Kanjeng Ratu Kidul (Queen of the South Sea, ruler of the Indian Ocean) for their safety at sea.

There are also other rituals such as jamasan (washing royal heirlooms), tirakatan (night vigil), meditating in remote places, and so on. In contrast to the other New Year celebrations, Javanese New Year is more reflective and less celebratory.

Tolerance & Harmony in celebrating New Year in Jogja

The New Years are all parts of imported cultures. While Gregorian New Year is from the West (Roman-Christian), Imlek and 1 Suro are taken from Chinese and Islamic-Hindu-Javanese cultures respectively. People may question the Jogjanese cultural identity here, but if we look closely the ready adaptation of foreign elements is sign of a strong identity.

What we see is a community that is open-minded, tolerant, and culturally rich. During Imlek, people who are not of Chinese descent also support and help out with the event—many lion dancers are Javanese. I have even heard that in recent years, it is also celebrated in mosques and churches by Muslim and Christian Chinese.

While most Jogjanese embrace one of the major religions, customs surrounding Javanese New Year are still part of their traditional spirituality—called Kejawen. That being said, Javanese New Year is now more commemorated as a non-religious tradition in spite of being based on the Islamic calendar. That means everyone can take part in it regardless their religion.

Like many celebrations, the three New Years are rooted in spiritual beliefs. Given that religious tolerance is a big issue in Indonesia of late, knowing it is celebrated cheerfully and peacefully in Jogja, brings pride and hope for the new year.

Harmonic life in that sense is a reality in Jogja, a bold manifestation of Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

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