There are something like 18 public holidays in Kuala Lumpur. Some of the holidays are religious occurrences and some commemorate civic events, like important dates in history. Regardless of the type of holiday, everyone gets the day off. Because not everyone celebrates all of the holidays, some businesses might be closed and others will be open. Though as far as we can tell, the malls are always open. One of my blogging comrades at Experimental Expats recently wrote about his experience with new public holidays when he moved to Canada, and wondered what the holidays would be like in Malaysia when they arrive here. There are a lot! And virtually none of them were familiar to us. It’s also very different that the holiday is celebrated on whatever day of the week it falls on, not “observed” on a Monday or Friday. This makes for some crazy work weeks when the holiday falls on a Wednesday!
31 August, which happened to be the weekend we arrived, is Merdeka Day, which celebrates the 1957 independence from the British. We used our jet lag to our advantage and saw the parade at Merdeka Square. Meredeka Day is quickly followed by, and should not be confused with, Malaysia Day on 16 September. Malaysia Day celebrates the joining of the various provinces and territories into one, unified Malaysia in 1963. 5 October is Hari Raya Haji, to celebrate the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. 22 October is Deepavali. Deepavali was a big deal, on par with Christmas in terms of public decorations. That was fun to observe from the outside, since Micah was sick we ended up not checking out a lot of the celebrations on the actual day. Since Thanksgiving is uniquely American, no one celebrated here, though there were some giant Butterball turkeys at the grocery store that I have only seen that one week. Some of the Americans took the day off from Micah’s work, but we decided we’d rather save the vacation days for fun excursions.
Just recently was the Sultan of Selangor’s birthday on 11 December. Kuala Lumpur is a federal district, much like Washington D.C., so it’s not really “in” Selangor. But Selangor surrounds the city geographically and KL follows whatever Selangor-specific holidays there are. I have no idea what kind of celebrations people have, whether there is some kind of a public birthday party for the Sultan. It might be like President’s Day in the States – it’s a civic holiday, but not a holiday for a celebration. Christmas is a public holiday, which I will describe in more detail below.
Upcoming in January is New Year’s Day, which doesn’t need to be explained, as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on 3 January. Because the Islamic calendar and the Gregorian calendar don’t line up exactly, the date shifts around a little bit. This year, it falls on a Saturday, so Friday might be a “replacement” holiday. February brings Federal Territory Day, only celebrated in the Federal Territories, on 1 February. It marks the day that Kuala Lumpur was designated a Federal Territory in 1974. 3 February is Thaipusam, which is a Hindu holiday celebrated by the Tamil community. We’re told that Batu Caves is the place to go to observe the celebration. We have two days for Chinese New Year, this year it’s 19-20 of February. March and April do not have any holidays that KL will celebrate, although there are a few that will be celebrated in other states. In May we’ll celebrate Labour Day on 1 May. 6 June is Agong’s Birthday, the Agong is the head of state of Malaysia, we have heard him colloquially referred to as the King. He is chosen from one of the current Sultans and serves for a five year term. In July we’ll have several holidays to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: Nuzul al-Quran commemorates the day the Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. Ironically, it falls on 4 July this year. 17 July is Hari Raya Aidilftri, which marks the end of Ramadan and the end of the fasts. Then we are back to Merdeka Day in August. It’s been very interesting to see several different religious traditions equally celebrated with public holidays.
According to the 2010 census, Christians make up less than 6% of the population in KL, so we weren’t sure what to expect for Christmas. We knew it was officially a public holiday, but would there be decorations and to-do like back home? Never fear, it’s a bigger deal than I could have ever imagined. Much like in the U.S., Christmas here is very commercial. Decorations started going up in the malls the week before Thanksgiving- or at least the date that Thanksgiving is celebrated in the U.S. This left 4 weekends of shopping until Christmas, so that seemed reasonable to me. Much better than the “right after Halloween” trend in the States! There are cute decorations, trees, and lights in all of the lobbies at the hotel, as well as in the restaurant at breakfast. All of the shops, malls, and the hotel are playing carols non-stop. In many ways, this is exactly what I’d expect in the U.S. However there is absolutely no association with the religious “reason for the season” that I can see- no angels, no mangers, not really even any stars. (Surely the Christian churches are celebrating with displays of the manger or angels or something, but there aren’t any churches in my daily circuit, so I have no idea what’s going on there.)
Micah’s work had a Christmas celebration this weekend, dinner at a really fancy buffet restaurant. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not. Traditionally, Malay restaurants serve food buffet style. This place had all kinds of amazing food choices, from Western to Indian to sushi to Malay and what I’m going to call “choose your own adventure”. You picked some raw meat, whatever type and quantity you wanted, and they cooked it for you. Almost like a Mongolian BBQ type thing, but only meat- no veggies and no sauce. I think they grilled everything, but I’m not completely sure, we weren’t encouraged to watch the cooking methods. I chose chicken tikka masala from the Indian food section and several things from an amazing salad/veggie bar. Micah tried several different things from all over and liked the lamb chops from the “choose your own adventure” section best. It was a fun evening, and I only committed one faux pas (that I am aware of) when I was introduced to one of Micah’s devout Muslim coworkers and I offered my hand for a handshake. Touching women (to whom one is not related) is taboo, but he quickly got over his moment of shock and graciously shook my hand. In my defense, several other people I was introduced to offered their hands to shake first, so I assumed that it was acceptable in that environment. Apparently the others were not Muslim, or not devout. Either way, lesson learned: Don’t be the first one to offer a hand to shake, wait and reciprocate with whatever gesture is offered.
The restaurant was close to our hotel, less than a 15-minute walk. After eating too much delicious food, though, we decided we wanted to take a longer walk before heading home for the night. The obvious choice was inside a mall, since they are air conditioned and safe to walk in at night. We decided to check out the Christmas Magnificence display at Pavillion, one of the malls. In the display space in the center, they set up a walk through of trees, lights, and various animatronic scenes. We’ve seen it from a distance when we’ve been at the mall for various errands or meals or whatever, but had yet to walk through it.
Just like everything else at the malls, the Christmas decorations are way over the top. Besides the Christmas Magnificence display, Pavillion also has trees lining the walkway to their main entrance, and a nightly light show. (At the time of this writing, we have yet to see the light show.) At Suria, the mall in the Petronas Towers, they have a giant tree in center court as well as other over-sized decorations (a rocking horse, presents, and something that I think is supposed to be a toy box). I guess it’s supposed to make you feel small to better experience the wonder of Christmas, or something. Outside the mall, in a plaza near the park, there is an absolutely giant tree with giant baubles on it. This one is probably my favorite decoration, maybe because it’s in one of my favorite spots.
There are two things about the Christmas decorations that baffle me, though. I’ve seen so many people taking family pictures in front of the displays in the mall, particularly at Suria. This, by itself, is not so odd. But I see an equal number of Muslims in religious attire taking pictures there, too. From my conversations with some of the employees at the hotel, Malays (who are typically Muslim) don’t usually celebrate Christmas. I don’t think the Indian or Chinese populations celebrate it either, so I don’t know who in KL is celebrating besides the expats. The only reason I can see for all the group photos is just because of the spectacle of the decorations. They are pretty, and they are impressive, so I guess that is reason enough on it’s own. I feel like I’m walking on a thin line here… my point is that it seems strange to me to want to take family pictures in front of icons of a celebration I don’t take part in. As a tourist opportunity, I guess it makes sense. I took a lot of pictures of Deepavali after all, but I don’t think we took any pictures of us at Deepavali.
The other thing I can’t wrap my head around about the Christmas decorations is the imagery. It’s exactly what I would expect in the States: snowmen, snow flakes, sleighs, various characters skiing, Santas and elves dressed for North Pole weather. All of the characters have Western complexions (which further supports my theory that it’s expats who are celebrating), and there isn’t any trade in Malaysia- or Kuala Lumpur-specific decorations. One tradition that Micah and I have is to get an ornament on our trips, so our Christmas tree becomes a way to relive our various adventures. In the U.S., no matter what time of year, you can usually find location specific ornaments at tourist locations. For example, Cowboy Santas in Texas and we have a Santa on the beach wearing a tropical shirt from a trip to the Caribbean. Here, there is no Santa at the Petronas Towers, no Santa with a wau (a traditional Malaysian kite and a symbol of Malaysia), no Santas wearing batik prints, nothing. All of the ornaments we can buy are nearly identical to ones we could buy in the U.S. (We settled on a small wood carving of the towers that’s supposed to be a key chain- easily modified into a Christmas ornament! On that same note, we acquired a small elephant key chain in Thailand for the same reason.)
In some ways, it’s really nice to see the trees and decorations. It’s comforting to hear all of our favorite Christmas carols, Bing Crosby, the Beach Boys and all! In other ways, this Christmas just feels strange. With no seasonal weather change, not even a slight one, it’s much more difficult to feel “ready” for such a seasonal holiday. But the biggest disconnect I feel is not celebrating with our families and our traditions. A family member mentioned missing my Christmas cookies this year – spending days baking, decorating, and then sharing Christmas cookies is one of my favorite traditions. I’m really bummed to miss out on that this year. (And before some suggests I make cookies to share at the hotel, we don’t have an oven. Insert sad trombone here.) We have been talking about how we will celebrate Christmas, and we decided we should go out for Chinese food. If it’s good enough for Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, it’s good enough for us!
Merry Christmas, y’all!