Regardless of race: One nation, many festivals

We are one united people celebrating our diverse, unique, individual cultures and faiths through different festivals. The Straits Times digs into its archives and explores the various festive occasions celebrated in Singapore.

Spectators doing the Kallang Wave at the National Day Parade at the Padang in 2015.
Spectators doing the Kallang Wave at the National Day Parade at the Padang in 2015.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - National Day is a celebration that brings together Singaporeans of every stripe and colour but each community also celebrates its own festivals throughout the year and adds colour to the diverse fabric of the nation.

Some festivals, like Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year, are public holidays and have become popular celebrations that all communities take part in - visiting friends and relatives from different ethnic and religious groups.

Other festivals like Pongal - celebrated mainly by Hindus with roots in South India - and the Prophet Muhammad's birthday are not public holidays but are marked by the faithful and the traditions are kept alive and passed on to the next generation.

These festivals offer a sense of connection and community. For instance, secondary school teacher Jihad Suhaimi, 24, said celebrating the Prophet's birthday provides an opportunity for Muslims to come together and focus on the life and values of Prophet Muhammad.

He said: "Some mosques in Singapore have gatherings where we recite poems of praise in Arabic and end off with a feast."

The Prophet Muhammad's birthday - also known as Maulidur Rasul or Mawlid - is usually celebrated in the third month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

Mr Jihad added that the occasion is an opportunity for the community to forge stronger bonds and form ties of kinship.

Similarly, kinship and family ties take centrestage at other celebrations like the Qing Ming Festival - a Chinese tradition that involves visiting the graves of one's relatives.

Retired school administration worker Tay Bee Geok, 57, said she hopes that younger people continue the tradition as it is important to remember and respect loved ones who have died.

Speaking in Mandarin, she said: "My father passed away last year and for me, it's about bringing him his favourite foods. He always loved the cakes I make so I brought him that this year."

Qing Ming, which means "clear and bright" in Mandarin, usually involves visiting cemeteries and columbaria with food and other offerings, and cleaning the graves.

It falls on the 15th day of the spring equinox, which is on either April 4, 5 or 6 every year.

A photo from April 5, 2019, shows a man with offerings at Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery during the Qing Ming Festival. PHOTO: ST FILE

Remembering important links to the past is also an important aspect of the Sikh festival Vesakhi.

Traditionally celebrated as a harvest festival in India, it has an added facet as it marks a key event in the establishment of the Sikh religion and identity - the birth of the Khalsa or concept of a Sikh community instituted by Sri Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.

Khalsa also means pure in the Punjabi language.

On Vesakhi - usually celebrated on April 13 - Sikhs are baptised in the faith through the Amrit Sanchar ceremony of the initiation into the Khalsa.

Mr Gurcharan Singh Kesail, 65, who is the assistant secretary of the Sikh Missionary Society Singapore, said: "To me, Vesakhi is about re-establishing my connection to the faith year on year."

In Singapore, it is marked by three days of recitation of religious texts as well as social and cultural events like hockey and football matches.

A photo from April 13, 2013, shows head priest Patwant Singh reading scriptures under the Palki, as devotees queue to pay their respects at the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

While these festivals seek to celebrate and remember the past, for some people, the celebration is also a way of looking ahead to the future.

Mr Sonny Naidu, 52, who is a manager in the aviation industry, said celebrating Pongal is a part of ensuring that his children grow up with a sense of belonging and direction.

Pongal, which is a Hindu harvest festival, is celebrated at the start of the month of Thai in the Tamil solar calendar, usually in January.

Mr Sonny said: "For me and my family, it starts early in the morning when we prepare traditional dishes. After we finish our prayers, we visit my parents and we have a vegetarian meal for lunch."

Pongal is named after a traditional sweet dish made as part of a ritual that takes pride of place during the festival, and means "to boil or overflow".

Milk boiling and spilling over from the pot - the crescendo of Pongal celebrations - at Holy Tree Balasubramaniam Temple on Jan 14, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

Traditionally, rice is cooked in milk and jaggery - a type of unrefined sugar - until it boils over to symbolise prosperity and abundance.

Mr Sonny, whose wife is Chinese, said it is important for him to get his three children to understand and observe the tradition because it is part of instilling in them a sense of identity.

He said: "Being children of mixed-race heritage, it is all the more important to be aware of their roots and for us to help them understand that they have the best of both worlds."