New Year Under Lockdown: A Different Celebration This Year

For Osanda Samarasinghe (45), the highlight of April has been celebrating the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. He and his family would observe traditional nekath at the appropriate auspicious times, and before the New Year dawned, would shop for clothes and prepare and plan their finances for the upcoming year.

“We would renovate and repaint the house, make kavum, kokis, and aluwa. And on the day of the New Year, we would distribute it amongst our neighbours,” he told Roar Media.  

This year’s Sinhala and Tamil New Year will kick off at the auspicious time of 8:23 p.m. on Monday (today, April 13). The auspicious time—or nekatha—for the first ritual of the New Year, which is to prepare the first meal, is at 10:05 p.m. also today. But this time, the New Year will not be celebrated with extended family and friends. It will take place within the confines of homes surrounded by only immediate family members.  

Pettah, April 2017—this shopping area is usually filled with people preparing for the New Year, but will this year be a ghost town due to the ongoing curfew. Image credits: Roar Media/ Nazly Ahmed

Advice To Celebrate At Home

On Thursday (April 8) the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs urged the public to observe Sinhala and Tamil New Year rituals within their own homes, and in a subdued manner. The measures were aimed at preventing gatherings by continuing the social distancing policy the government had adopted as a strategy to contain COVID-19. 

As a result, New Year uthsawa (festivities) and religious gatherings will not be permitted. 

“We cannot celebrate, therefore we must adhere to nature’s orders. [This New Year] we are going to stay home and try to do some of these festivities as safely as possible,” Samarasinghe said.

“Normally, this would be the April holidays, meaning 10 days to spend time with family. This season, we have already spent a lot of days with the family, which is good,” he added with a laugh. 

“But we will be missing a lot of things this year,” he said. “We can’t organise the games within the community, or exchange food with neighbours. This is rather sad.” 

No Parties; No Fun

New Year for Kanthi* (60) and her family ordinarily meant throwing a massive dinner party for her entire neighbourhood within a gated community in Ja-Ela. But not this year. 

“Every year, our community comes together and we throw this avurudu party,” she told Roar Media. “Early in the morning, we exchange sweets. Later on, everyone meets at this plot of land within the housing scheme. We set up games and put out chairs and usually take part in a whole lot of events.”

The merriment would typically carry on late into the evening, Kanthi said. “We would then meet at one of the houses afterwards for the dinner party.”

It is not just the inability to prepare for the New Year as they ordinarily would by shopping for new clothes, making traditional sweets or putting up decorations that have affected many. A lack of supplies has led to frugality and many are aware they will not be able to prepare a feast as they ordinarily would for the holiday. 

Helping Others

This year, Varushini Balasingam (31) and her mother have decided to forego celebrating the New Year this time. “We are in Colombo, so we receive some supplies but there are families who do not get the same, who have only one meal a day, and are struggling,” Balasingham said. 

“We can’t buy new clothes or step out. So, instead of celebrating, we thought of seeing how we can help those in need. We are in the same country and in the same situation. We should also think about the COVID-19 patients during this time,” she said. 

Sisira (63) owns a small store on a byroad in Udahamulla. One of the few shops allowed to open for a maximum of 12 hours a day, Sisira only allows those wearing a face mask to enter. 

Aside from the dry good and other daily essentials, Sisira also allows his neighbours to provide a selection of items—typically food, whether fresh or prepared—to sell at his store.

“There is a woman in the neighbourhood who used to make sweets for avurudu and sell it to my store. She can’t do that this year,” he said. “How can we ask her to make kavili these days? We don’t have the ingredients to sell to them, let alone people who would want to buy kavili from us now.” 

“People cannot celebrate avurudu properly until this wasangathaya [plague] passes over. No one will go paying calls to their family, or to the temple because it’s not allowed. Not even cakes are available”

A variety of games are organised on a community level during the New Year. Photo Credits: Roar Media/Nazly Ahmed

Very Different This Year 

Chandrika* too has had to cancel all her New Year plans this time around. Living in Dematagoda with her family, she has had trouble finding essential items needed to make kavili.

Putha told me to do something small even, but what are we to do?” she told Roar Media. “To make any [of our sweets]we need coconut oil. I can’t find coconut oil anywhere. We are using what we have very sparingly.”

A few weeks ago, things were far worse. “I couldn’t find flour anywhere. I called the nangi at the shop at the top of the road but she also told me they didn’t have any. I couldn’t find milk powder. And the turmeric–they had mixed haal piti (flour) into the turmeric powder so that they could sell it. When you put it into a little water, you’d see how it clots,” she said. 

But despite the odds, people are looking for ways to celebrate in the simplest ways possible. This was apparent when earlier this week Chandrika one neighbour organised flour for her and another sent by a carton of eggs. 

“Maybe I will make a small cake at least,” she mused. 

* Some names have been changed at the request of those we spoke to. 

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