Sri Lanka is a country of different cultural and religious groups. Ethnically, there are four different cultures in the country - Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burghers. Followers of various religious groups reside in the country and notable among them are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. According to the 1999 census survey report, 74% of the population is Sinhalese, 18% Tamil, 7% Muslims and only 1% are Burghers. There are two types of festivals (religious and cultural) celebrated in the country.
Religious festivals are Deepavali, Eids and Christmas. Cultural festivals are such world famous festivals as Esala Perahera and Sinhala. In Sri Lanka's history of cultural anthropology, the "Traditional New Year" is celebrated in April and its history spans thousands of years. It is believed that the New Year celebration brings changes in thought, belief and norms. It is also associated with fertility of harvest and gives birth to new rituals, customs and traditions. It is celebrated according to the interpretation of New Buddhism teachings. The Buddhist outlook was predominant in transforming the New Year rites to what they are now.
According to Smith, "Given the universality of festivals, people need periodic times of escape from work, times in which they can be joyous together". The New Year festival is celebrated on April 13 and 14 and both days are declared public holidays. This folk festival is an occasion of merriment among people. The Sinhalese New Year begins with cultural rituals like cleaning of the house and lighting of an oil lamp to bring prosperity in the home; women play Raban (a type of drum) to announce new things in the home. Virtually all the people celebrate rituals with their families under astrological calculations. They make Kiribath (milk rice) for lighting fire and when they start a new business. They also start rituals with firecrackers and believe that with the burning of firecrackers, no evils will enter their home in the coming year.
When the families complete important rituals, they meet each other and mingle in the streets. Homes are kept open and children play with each other. Cultural dishes such as Kayum (small oil cake) and kokis (crisp and light sweetmeat) are served to guests while neighbours take a special part in outdoor activities. Celebrations in cities and villages may be little different for certain reasons, including the difference in lifestyle. The special flower YakFrabadu is a sign of the start of the New Year in Sri Lanka.
The New Year festival is also known as the harvest festival. People worship the sun to bring prosperity to their lives. There are different opinions regarding worshipping the sun. The Sinhalese festival brought in more enthusiasm when agriculture was the main profession of the Sri Lankans (mostly Buddhist). Gamlath suggests, "The ancient who knew no secret of nature and thus depended on it as the blind celebrated New Year festival not only to rejoice crop cutting but also to worship nature inclusive of the sun. In those harvesting festivals, people stored grain in their barns.
Now days, however, this festival is more meaningful for the people than it used to be when agriculture was the main profession. It is blessed with many social, economic, and religious activities. To participate in these activities is leisure for the people. These activities also remind us of the harvest season activities that prevailed in the past. As Bhattacharya reminds us, "Festivals coincided with post-harvest or provided relief from the monotony of the lean seasons. Economy and time are so closely linked with leisure in societies and borne out by history which tells us the same relationship is extended in the case of hunter-gatherer communities".
The New Year festival promotes artistes. It also provides them with opportunities to earn money, establish a market for cultural goods and services and make unite them as a part of the community. Festivals are unique experiences. Most items are available at low prices as compared to normal days and a poor person can buy what he otherwise could not. All this is possible due to the joint efforts of public and private bodies.
Festivals are important in getting a better understanding of the social and economic structure of society, where economic and cultural relations among people are an important part created by these festivals. The New Year festival provides an understanding of Sinhalese culture, religion and lifestyle. It helps decipher the hidden meanings behind the celebrations. It is suggested that these events might have the effect of encouraging visitors to consume a greater proportion of locally produced food, which can have a healthy benefit for the consumer, and create a better economic and ecological environment for the local community. Festivals can also help the economy as they improve the economic activity and people can earn more money.
The social power of the New Year festival leads to healthy social outcomes, such as trust and communication and social networking increases in society. Social change brings economic prosperity at the micro level. It strengthens the internal capacity of the people and provides opportunities for the progress of society.