Singapore has managed to create a very cosmopolitan environment while preserving treasured cultures and their traditions. While some of the oldest traditions are going by the wayside, many of the most important continue, and lucky expatriates will be able to witness Singapore’s major cultural traditions and celebrations.
Chinese New Year (Late January or early February)
Considered by many to be the biggest festival in Singapore, it is the most important festival for ethnic Chinese. In China, this festival marks a one-week holiday, but in Singapore, it is a consecutive two-day holiday, though many take additional days off. This is a very important family celebration, and preparations take place for months before. Usually, shops begin to market CNY goods straight after Christmas. Multiple street markets selling traditional New Year decorations and food spring up to complement the festive atmosphere. Countdown parties on New Year’s eve are not uncommon. Traditionally, the New Year celebration ends on the 15th day, after a long series of family visits, but due to work related issues, people usually just celebrate the eve, the 1st, 2nd and last days of Chinese New Year.
Chingay Parade (February)
This event, which is part of the Chinese New Year celebrations has evolved into a major multicultural and entertainment event which takes place in the evening and includes a wide variety of forms of entertainment, including stilt walkers, lion and dragon dancing, pyrotechnics and parades.
Thaipussam is a festival that should not be missed. It marks a special day in the Hindu calendar and male members of the community show the sincerity of their faith by walking the 3km between the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road and the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple on Tank Road. The devotees practice self-mortification, piercing their bodies with hooks, skewers and spikes. It’s an amazing festival to behold but may be a little stomach churning for some!
Hari Raya Puasa/Haji (September/ November)
Hari Raya is the biggest Muslim festival. Hari Raya Puasa is the Malay term for the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, one month of fasting during which all Muslims are not allowed to eat until after sunset. Street markets or “pasar malams” are also common during this month to cater to the fasting Muslims, making everyday seem like a celebration as many gather at the street markets waiting to break fast with an enormous feast. On the day itself, Muslims take the chance to dress up and visit family members.
Hari Raya Haji, or the “pilgrimage festival”, marks the end of a Muslim’s pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, it commemorates Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail in an act of obedience to God. Ritual slaughter of goats and other livestock are performed at mosques to commemorate the sacrifice.
DuanWu Jie (May)
This festival is one that has roots all the way back to ancient China. It is said a loyal government official was unfairly tried by corrupt officials and sentenced to drowning in the river. The people, who knew he was innocent, wanted to save him. Therefore, they sent out many ‘dragon boats’ fitted with drums to scare away the fish and made glutinous rice dumplings, throwing them into the river to prevent the fishes from eating him. As a result, the festival today usually marks a flurry of glutinous rice dumpling sale and also numerous dragon boat races.
Good Friday / Easter Sunday (April)
This well-known Christian holiday needs no more introduction, as many should have already heard its story countless times. In Singapore, celebrations are very low-profile and mostly confined to small family celebrations instead of mass celebrations. Westernization, however, brings the commercial side of Easter to Singapore, and one can find sumptuous Easter buffets advertised widely during the season.
Vesak Day (May)
Vesak day is a day for all Buddhists to celebrate the birth, life, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. Temples across the island will usually hold celebrations and provide free vegetarian meals. These are said to be blessings for the devout. Buddhists also participate in a host of activities including mass prayer sessions and releasing of caged birds. Some of the most advantageous points in the city for observing the festivities of Vesak Day are the Buddhist Lodge at River Valley Road, The Thai Buddhist Temple at Jalan Bukit Merah and Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple at Jalan Toa Payoh.
Mid-Autumn Festival / Mooncake Festival (September)
This festival also has its origins in ancient China. It is said a rebellion was brewing in China to overthrow the corrupt monarchy. The rebels, however, needed a way to synchronize the attacks on the government. In a stroke of genius, they made mooncakes, a form of pastry shaped like a full moon. The mooncake signified the rebellion and in it would be a note detailing the exact time and venue to strike. With this, they overthrew the monarchy and the festival was created in celebration. There are, however, many other myths and fairytales related to the origins of Mid-Autumn Festival. On this day, people usually indulge in eating mooncakes with tea and spend time gazing at the full moon. Children would carry lanterns around in celebration of the festival. Major department stores’ basement food shops offer boxes of tasty mooncakes to purchase as gifts or for your home.
National Day (9th August)
National Day is the day when Singapore marks its independence. Most Singaporeans wear red and white on this day as a show of national pride. Massive celebrations will take place, including an extensive parade where top government officials join the people in celebration of Singapore’s independence. The splendid marching contingents, amazing skydivers and creative performances never fail to entertain, though in-person attendance is by lottery and limited to Singapore citizens and permanent residents. Other expatriates can, however, watch the festivities from afar or on television. The fireworks on National Day are also the most spectacular.
Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, is the biggest festival for Hindus and Indians in Singapore. Lights in all forms and patterns are displayed in Hindu Temples and Indian districts. Little India is beautifully lit a night, and dance and other celebrations are aplenty, complemented by large street markets. Indians usually release candles on water bodies on Deepavali, create beautiful sand paintings to decorate their homes and businesses, and light ceramic lanterns, or diyas, in offering.
Christmas (25th December)
While not necessarily for its religious purposes, Christmas is widely celebrated in Singapore. Decorations during the month of December are extravagant, especially along Orchard Road, and shopping malls compete for the best Christmas celebrations. Records have been broken and re-created every Christmas, each outdoing the last. During this season, shopping promotions abound, and festive foods are offered all over the island.