2.6 Festivals & ceremonies

What Festivals Do Asian Peranakans Celebrate?

While Asian Peranakans, coming from a multi-ethnic background, have adopted elements of various cultures, they generally follow one of these elements more closely. For the majority of them, this is the Chinese tradition. As historically Chinese-leaning, most Asian Peranakans are of the Buddhist and Taoist faiths in the syncretic manner traditional to most Chinese families. As such, they will be found to mark almost all the traditional Chinese festivals. Even those who have adopted Christianity generally observe the cultural aspects of these festivals, without the religious elements. 

Chiefest among these festivals is, of course, the Chinese New Year, an occasion for giving thanks for the blessings of the previous year, praying for the good fortune of the previous year to continue and new blessings from the deities. It is a family holiday and an occasion for gatherings of extended family and, of course, tasty seasonal dishes. The weeks leading up to the New Year are filled with busy house cleaning and decoration, the making of new clothes, gift exchanges, the cooking of seasonal specialties and baking of snacks. The eve of Chinese New Year is time of the reunion dinner, and Chinese traditionally try to make it home, no matter how far away they are, for this meal at which traditional dishes are served. The first day of the New Year is marked by the offering of incense at the family altar or a visit to the temple to pray for good luck. A custom has grown up among the Christian Peranakans to attend a special church service marking the festival on the morning of this first day. Then comes a ritual where younger members of the family kneel or bow and pay their respects to elder members in turn, wishing them long life and good health. This is followed by the elders giving red packets containing cash to younger members of the family. Families may send gifts of seasonal snacks to their Malay and Indian neighbours and friends, in return for the gift of similar snacks during their own festivals. Some families have a custom of visiting graves of departed family on the first day, to honour them with gifts of fruit and incense, a custom adopted from their Muslim Malay neighbours who visit family graves on the first day of Hari Raya (Eid ul-Fitr) to offer flowers, prayers, and scented water. Family visits to the homes of friends and relatives then take place according to a complicated system of rank and order, generally with elder members of the family staying home and younger members going out to make visits. The whole thing lasts fourteen days. 

The Dumpling Festival, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is celebrated by Asian Peranakans as well as by Chinese. The roots of this summer festival lie in the tale of an unhappy Chinese poet’s suicide in protest of a ruler failing to implement social reform intended to benefit the poor. The poet drowned himself in a river, and the peasants threw glutinous rice dumplings into the water in an attempt to persuade the fishes and marine creatures not to eat the poet’s body. The making and eating of dumplings for this festival has become a pan-Chinese tradition, with each province and county having their own unique preferred fillings and style, albeit all wrapped in the traditional bamboo leaves. Asian Peranakan dumplings are no exception, and the Nyonya bak chang is a notable favourite in South-East Asia. 

The Lantern Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, is also observed on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. With the moon at its fullest, this is a time for evening outdoor family reunions, thanksgiving for the harvest, and prayers for continued blessings. To mark the fullness of the moon, round mooncakes are baked and consumed. The fillings of these mooncakes varies from place to place, but are generally sweet, such as lotus seed paste, yam paste, or sweet bean paste. These mooncakes are eaten with tea, to the accompaniment of music and poetry.

Joyous occasions such as births and weddings are celebrated in all cultures, and Asian Peranakan customs are among the most colourful. Births are celebrated with the distribution of special cake snacks to friends and relatives. Specific dishes with particular nutritious properties are cooked for the mother of the newborn to restore her health and build up her constitution after the travails of childbirth.

Asian Peranakan weddings are a 12-day affair, based on the traditional Chinese ceremonies, and when conducted in full, are elaborate and complex, requiring a Wedding Master and a Wedding Mistress to act as masters of ceremony and direct the rites. Food plays an important part of the rites, as the couple must ceremonially offer tea to the elders in turn, in gratitude for their upbringing, and at various times will eat specific foods with auspicious symbolic meanings, such as sweet soups and dumplings for a sweet life, lotus seed fillings for numerous offspring, and so on. A wedding feast is mandatory, and no shortcuts are allowed. Preparation of dishes begins as early as a week before the feast, and dishes were cooked slowly as a way of preserving food in an age before refrigeration. This feast is traditionally an all-day affair stretching from lunch to dinner, with seatings based on seniority and rank in the family and social order.

Chetti Malacca, being mostly Hindu, will observe most South Indian festivals. The Tamil New Year or Puthandu is marked with solemnity, with special foods and prayers being offered. The harvest festival of Pongal and Deepavali are also celebrated in ways similar to those of their Indian counterparts. The Asian Peranakans of other regions will also similarly celebrate the festivals of their lands, albeit with their own twists.

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