Most Chinese festivals, whether based on seasons, myths about gods or ghosts, or a combination of these, stem from a belief in worshiping the gods to appease them and prevent misfortune. The biggest celebration is the beginning of the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year’s celebrations in Indonesia, known locally as Imlek and Chinese New year 2015 will be held on 19th February. Incorporate customs, beliefs and practices brought to Indonesia by Chinese immigrants who still follow the practices handed down from their parents. Although Chinese New Year was not a national holiday on the Indonesian calendar for many years, beginning in 2002, Chinese New Year became a national holiday, to the pleasure of millions of Chinese Indonesians.
Chinese New Year is a time to show respect for those that have passed away and to reunite with family members. Departed relatives are remembered with great respect because they were responsible for laying the foundations for the family’s fortune. Within the ethnic Chinese community there are immigrants from many regions throughout China. Each of these immigrant communities brought the unique traditions of their hometowns to Indonesia. This diversity in origins explains the diversity in the way Chinese New Year is celebrated by communities throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
An important part of the preparations for the holiday is the thorough cleaning of the family home. This is important not only as preparation for the many guests who are expected during the holidays, but also because it is symbolic of sweeping away the evil spirits that might be lurking in dark corners or behind heavy pieces of furniture that are rarely moved. All cleaning and sweeping must be completed before New Year’s Day, with the brooms and brushes out of the house prior to the dawn of the New Year. Otherwise the family believes they will have bad luck and a year of work and drudgery. Sweeping cannot be done on New Year’s Day for fear that good fortune would be swept away.
On New Year’s Eve family members gather to observe the customs and share a traditional meal. Family members come from across town or across the Indonesian archipelago to welcome in the New Year together, usually at the home of the eldest family member. According to custom, the male head of the family leads the family in making offerings to various house gods and family ancestors. Respect is paid to the god of wealth and the gods of the well, bed, hearth and other gods who the family wants to remain on good terms with. The offerings are usually a variety of foods, cakes and fruits placed on an offering table, placed outside the house. While holding the incense in both hands, each family member would ‘pai-pai’ (bow down) three times to show respect and honor for the house gods. Then the incense is placed in a holder on the offering table and family members bow again to show respect and ask permission to enter the house.
An offering table or ancestral table is also set up inside the house, if there is a member of the family who has already passed away. A picture of the deceased is hung above the table. In wealthier family’s homes an entire room might be used as an ancestral hall complete with altar and tables for each generation. Small offerings are placed throughout the year to honor deceased family members. On New Year’s Day, however, the table overflows with a beautiful display of food, flowers and the special dishes once enjoyed by the deceased during his/her life.
Barongsai, the Lion Dance
Barongsai may be common place on New Year’s Day in other Asian counties, but they are normally called to private homes or private parties for viewing in Indonesia. Barongsai is a large dragon-like puppet measuring between four to six meters that is manned by three or four dancers. The dancer that controls the head of the Barongsai must be well versed in Kung Fu as many of the steps in the dance resemble Kung Fu movements. Performers must have great strength and endurance when using the larger dragons as they can weigh up to several hundred kilograms.
A Barongsai troop, consisting of at least 10 people, will arrive in a truck and the accompanying orchestra can be heard long before the arrival. Drums, bells and symbols provide music for the dance. Families are happy to be visited by Barongsai because they feel it will bring them good luck. At the completion of the dance the spectators place ang pau in the mouth of the Barongsai in appreciation for the performance. Depending on the organization backing the troop, most of the money collected is used for social work. With increasing freedom to celebrate their traditional customs, Indonesian Chinese can now even find special promotions in some Jakarta shopping malls during the Chinese New Year season which may include a barongsai performance.