“Sri Lankan” New Year (note lack of ethnic labels) in April is almost upon us shutting down the country. It is a tricky holiday to explain to non Sri Lankan friends abroad. The short version is it to cut through all the astrology induced rituals such as chicken kicking and describe it as a family network revitalization event.
Unlike Sri Lankan weddings, the April new year is reserved for immediate kinship groups. The holiday rituals are an opportunity for sprawling Sri Lankan family networks to afirm hierarchical roles and group identity. Paying obeciance to elders (it has nothing to do with “worship”) is the most visible aspect. Tucked away in the astrology driven schedule, are rituals to keep the mechanics of family dynamics purring smoothly. The symbolic exchange of coins to “settle” disagreements and differences is the most understated. The Sinhala term for this ritual is “give and take” (Ganu Denu) which means more than it says.
Occupations/trades are “formally” initiated for the new year by doing something work related. For kids it means dabbling with school books which was an annoying experience for the holidays.
The high point of the event is the new year meal. It is very similar to the American Thanks Giving feed accept that the auspicious time to start eating varies each year to the vagaries of astrology — sometimes to ridiculous hours in the morning. Traditional delicacies are involved. Another highlight is of course the gift giving which feels like christmas without the tree or the fat guy in red.
When the immediate family rituals are done it is traditional to visit family in order of seniority. Cerno’s extended brood avoided the insanity of Sri lankan scheduling by congregating at the paternal grandparents’ house. Where all the aunts, uncles and cousins repeated the nuclear family rituals, eat some more and dished out their presents. The best new year days were the one’s that start in the mornings. It stretches the visit to the grandparents’ into a deliciously long “spend the day”.
Now there are no grandparents and no old house. Just an apartment block and a fragment of the old garden. Not even the trees we played in have made it into the 21st century. There’s a picture (black and white) from the good old days of my grand mother surrounded the grand kids smiling radiantly. All of us must have been less than 8. The boys kited out in white “national” outfits. The girls in the traditional “Hetta and Cheeththa” (jacket and blouse). All but one of the kids in that picture now live in Sri Lanka. The rest strewn across multiple continents where the April new year feels meaningless. New years is a minimalist affair these days. Such is the way of things. No?
A happy and prosperous new year to you all.