Diversity in Celebrating New Year: Java, Indonesia

When I lived in Yogyakarta, one of my favourite times of the year was New Year’s Eve and the resulting noisy pandemonium. Trumpets blaring, people hugging people they didn’t even know, crowded streets and, a lot of joyous activity.

This year was a different situation as rain fell on Yogyakarta!. But aside from the fact it was the changing of a year, this was important to Indonesians as they had a choice how to celebrate as Mohammad Yazid reported.

Celebrating New Year and the freedom to choose
Mohammad Yazid, Jakarta

There was something to celebrate other than the New Year when Indonesians marked the turning of the calendar from 2006 to 2007 this week. Indonesia, a nation of diverse ethnic, cultural and religious groups, was relishing the freedom to choose how to celebrate the holiday.

In Jakarta, many people took to the streets leading to the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle and National Monument (Monas) park. Others gathered with Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso in the Ancol amusement park in North Jakarta for a fireworks show. But many Jakartans chose to stay at home, with family or neighbors, enjoying smaller, more intimate celebrations.

In Bandung, West Java, thousands of people clogged the main roads and Gasibu Square, while thousands of kilometers away in Ende, East Nusa Tenggara, the changing of the year was marked by a motorcade through the city center. Many of those who could afford to spend New Year’s Eve in luxury hotels and entertainment centers.

At the same time, many Muslim communities in the country marked the event with religious activities. At At-Tin Mosque at Taman Mini amusement park in East Jakarta, an Islamic teacher, Arifin Ilham, led thousands of people in chants in praise of God. A similar ceremony took place at Bekasi Police Headquarters.

In Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, churchgoers welcomed the new year with prayers for deliverance from natural and manmade disasters.

All these different ways of celebrating the New Year should be seen as one of the vehicles for achieving a convergence of views against the backdrop of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.

The diverse celebrations for the New Year can at least serve as a yardstick to assess the extent to which religious harmony is practiced in the normal life of Indonesian society. This is because New Year’s Eve coincided with the Islamic Day of Sacrifice.

The peaceful celebrations of these holidays should be regarded as a positive sign that religious harmony in predominantly Muslim Indonesia is improving, following years of bombings and violence.

For example, in 2005 a New Year’s Eve bombing at a Christian market in Palu, Central Sulawesi, killed seven people and injured 56. But thankfully there was no such violence at the end of 2006, a year marked by concerns of a “creeping Islamization” due to moves to pass sharia-based legislation and bylaws.

The different fashions of welcoming the New Year shouldn’t matter or spark any sort of debate about mutual respect for other faiths and traditions. If true religious harmony in the country is to be realized, such differences must never be eliminated. Rather they should be regarded as God’s way of creating equilibrium in life, with individuals and groups having different physical and spiritual needs, as well as different ways of fulfilling them.

In this regard, Makassar Mayor Ilham Arif Sirajuddin’s ban on nightspots operating on New Year’s Eve, because of its coincidence with the Islamic Day of Sacrifice, is difficult to understand.

Such a ban, apart from dealing a blow to the tourist industry and those people who depend on nightspots for their livelihood, could also give rise to social and religious conflicts.

Yogyakarta Governor Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X made a similar call for restraint in celebrating New Year’s Eve, but his appeal was based more on the fact that the province is still licking its wounds from the May 27 earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people and left thousands more homeless, many of whom are still living in shelters.

Among Muslims, there are indeed a variety of views about celebrating the New Year. Some consider it taboo, saying it is a ritual inherited from Christianity. In the religiously diverse Indonesia, such exclusive reasoning is difficult to accept. New Year’s celebrations have nothing to do with a certain religion; they are universal and inclusive.

The Makassar mayor should have followed the lead of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who took part in prayers on New Year’s Eve at Baiturrahim Mosque in Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, while ordering security personnel to stay on full alert to protect revelers welcoming 2007.

Equal respect and appreciation should go to those wishing to welcome the New Year with a party or with prayer and contemplation.

The writer can be reached at yazid@thejakartapost.com.