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All You Need to Know about Malaysian Festivals and Celebrations

In Malaysia, the annual calendar boasts a multitude of public holidays, as each religion and culture in this multiracial country has its own festivals.

This is excellent news, especially for working people and schoolchildren, because hey, who doesn’t love a few days’ break from work/school? And these holidays apply to everyone, regardless of personal faith or background. So, no matter what ethnicity or religion is written on your ID card, you will get days off for Eid, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Deepavali, and so on!

To top it off, each of these celebrations is often accompanied by big feasts and festivities. So, let’s find out what public holidays you can look forward to in Malaysia:

1. Eid-ul-Fitr (Hari Raya Aidilfitri)

Ketupat, a popular dish during Eid. Credit: Meutia Chaerani

Eid al-Fitr, known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri in Malaysia, is one of the biggest and most anticipated festivals in the country, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Leading up to the holiday, Muslims engage in a month of fasting, prayer, and reflection, focusing on self-discipline and empathy for the less fortunate.

When Eid arrives, it’s time for joyous celebration. The day begins with special prayers at mosques, followed by visits to family graves to honor loved ones. Families don new, often color-coordinated, traditional attire and gather for lavish feasts featuring dishes like rendang, satay, and ketupat.

Homes are beautifully decorated with oil lamps and vibrant lights, and the air is filled with a festive spirit as people visit each other, exchange gifts, and seek forgiveness. While the public holiday officially lasts only two days, the celebration typically continues for a month.

2. Chinese New Year

Chinese new year lanterns decorating the street. Credit: Alexander Synaptic / Wikimedia Commons

Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, is another one of the most vibrant and widely celebrated festivals in Malaysia. Days before the holiday, families engage in thorough cleaning of their homes to sweep away bad luck and welcome good fortune. Decorations in red, symbolizing prosperity and happiness, adorn homes and public spaces, with intricate paper cuttings and lanterns being particularly popular.

The festivities kick off with a reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, where families gather to enjoy a sumptuous meal featuring dishes like yee sang, dumplings, and various seafood, all symbolizing abundance and prosperity.

On New Year’s Day, families visit temples to offer prayers and light incense, seeking blessings for the year ahead. The celebration continues with the exchange of red envelopes (ang pow) containing money, symbolizing good luck, and vibrant lion and dragon dances that are performed to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune. The air is filled with the sounds of firecrackers, adding to the festive mood.

3. Deepavali

Lighting oil lamps for Deepavali. Credit: Khokarahman / Wikimedia Commons

Deepavali, also known as Diwali or the Festival of Lights, is a major Hindu festival in Malaysia.

To prepare for the holiday, homes are thoroughly cleaned and decorated with colorful rangoli designs made from rice flour, symbolizing the welcoming of prosperity and the dispelling of darkness. Oil lamps and candles are placed around homes and temples, illuminating the night and representing the victory of light over darkness and good over evil.

The festivities begin with early morning rituals, including a traditional oil bath that signifies purification and renewal. Families then dress in their finest clothes and head to temples for prayers and offerings, seeking blessings for the year ahead. The day is marked by feasts featuring an array of delicious sweets and savory dishes such as murukku, laddu, and biryani.

4. Christmas

Credit: Pexels / Wikimedia Commons

Although there is no chance for a white Christmas in Malaysia, the festive spirit is still very much alive. It is embraced by Malaysians of various faiths, with gift exchanges among friends and work colleagues. Shopping malls and public spaces are transformed with dazzling decorations, twinkling lights, and elaborately decorated Christmas trees.

On Christmas Eve, Christians attend midnight mass or church services. Families and friends gather for sumptuous feasts, enjoying dishes like roast turkey, fruitcake, and local delicacies. The presence of Santa Claus add to the festive cheer, especially for children.

5. Eid-ul-Adha (Hari Raya Aidiladha)

A cow being sacrificed for Eid. Credit: Izham Alias / Wikimedia Commons

Eid al-Adha, known as Hari Raya Haji in Malaysia, is a significant Islamic festival celebrated with solemnity. The festival commemorates the willingness of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God, and it emphasizes sacrifice, faith, and community.

On the morning of Eid al-Adha, Muslims gather at mosques or prayer grounds to perform special prayers. After prayers, they partake in the Qurban ritual, where animals such as sheep, goats, or cows are sacrificed. The meat is then distributed among family, friends, and the less fortunate, symbolizing generosity and solidarity within the community.

6. Thaipusam

A devotee carrying a milk urn to Batu Caves. Credit: Peter Gronemann / Wikimedia Commons

Thaipusam is a vibrant Hindu festival celebrated predominantly by the Tamil community in Malaysia, particularly at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur. Leading up to Thaipusam, devotees engage in a period of fasting and spiritual preparation as acts of penance and purification.

The highlight of Thaipusam is the kavadi procession, where devotees carry ornately decorated structures (kavadis) on their shoulders or pierce their bodies with hooks and skewers as acts of devotion and penance. These acts symbolize the burdens and sacrifices made for the sake of spiritual growth and fulfillment.

Many devotees undertake a pilgrimage on foot from temples to the Batu Caves, where the kavadis are carried up the steep steps leading to the temple cave. The piercing of the skin is a striking ritual that draws spectators from around the world, who often join in the procession.

7. Hari Gawai

Gawai Dayak in Borneo. Credit: baka_neko_ baka / Wikimedia Commons

Hari Gawai is a festival celebrated by the Dayak communities, particularly in Sarawak. It marks the rice harvest season and is a time of thanksgiving, renewal, and cultural pride.

Preparations begin with the cleaning and decorating of longhouses, which are traditional communal dwellings.

On Hari Gawai itself, the day starts with families and communities gathering for the Gawai Dayak ceremony, which includes traditional music, dances, and the offering of rice wine (tuak) to the gods and spirits. Elders perform rituals to bless the harvest and ensure prosperity for the community in the coming year.

One of the highlights of Hari Gawai is the wearing of traditional costumes, which are decorated with intricate beadwork and woven patterns. Feasting is central to the celebrations, with a variety of traditional dishes such as bamboo chicken, preserved fish, and pounded tapioca leaves.

8. Pesta Kaamatan

Pesta Kaamatan. Credit: Ricardo Unto / Wikimedia Commons

Pesta Kaamatan is also a harvest festival, but unlike Hari Gawai, which is mainly celebrated by the Dayak communities, Pesta Kaamatan is specific to the Kadazan-Dusun people of Sabah. Both share similarities in their focus on agriculture, thanksgiving, and cultural performances, but they do differ in certain aspects.

Pesta Kaamatan prominently features the Unduk Ngadau beauty pageant, where young women from various districts compete for the title of Harvest Festival Queen.

The festival also includes traditional rituals such as the Magavau ceremony, where offerings are made to the rice spirit for a bountiful harvest and blessings for the community. Bamboo musical instruments, known as sompoton, accompany cultural performances such as the sumazau dance.

9. Wesak Day

Vesak Day. Credit: Boinghiem / Wikimedia Commons

Wesak Day, celebrated by Buddhists, is a joyous occasion that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Gautama Buddha.

On the day of the celebration, Buddhists gather at temples before dawn for the ceremonial raising of the Buddhist flag and the chanting of sutras. Offerings of flowers, incense, and candles are made at the feet of Buddha statues as a symbol of reverence and gratitude.

One of the most symbolic rituals of Wesak Day is the ceremonial bathing of the Buddha statue. Devotees pour scented water over the shoulders of Buddha statues to purify the mind and symbolize the washing away of past sins and impurities.

Throughout the day, temples and homes are adorned with colorful decorations, and vegetarian meals are served to symbolize compassion and non-violence.

10. Pongal

Pongal festival. Credit: Esakkiammal stalin 96 / Wikimedia Commons

Pongal, celebrated by the Tamil community in Malaysia, is a four-day harvest festival that honors the Sun God and marks the end of the winter solstice. The festival usually takes place in mid-January and is a time for giving thanks for the bountiful harvest and seeking blessings for future prosperity.

The celebration begins with Bhogi Pongal, a day for discarding old belongings and cleaning homes to signify a fresh start.

The main day, known simply as Pongal, is marked by the boiling of fresh milk and rice in clay pots until they overflow, symbolizing abundance and prosperity. Homes are decorated with intricate kolam (rangoli) designs made from rice flour, and turmeric and sugarcane plants are used to adorn the area around the cooking pot. Families dress in new clothes and gather to share a festive meal that includes the sweet dish pongal, made from rice, milk, and jaggery.

The third day, Mattu Pongal, is dedicated to honoring cattle, which play a vital role in agriculture. Cows and bulls are bathed, decorated with colorful garlands, and their horns are painted. They are then offered special treats as a sign of gratitude for their hard work in the fields.

The final day, Kaanum Pongal, is a time for socializing and visiting friends and family.

11. Merdeka (Independence Day)

Merdeka Day parade. Credit: Rizuan / Wikimedia Commons

Merdeka Day, celebrated on August 31st, marks Malaysia’s Independence Day, commemorating the nation’s freedom from British colonial rule in 1957. Streets and buildings are decked up with the national flag, and a grand parade is held at Merdeka Square or Putrajaya, featuring marching bands, military displays, cultural performances, and vibrant floats.

On the eve of Merdeka Day, fireworks light up the night sky, kicking off the day’s celebrations with a spectacular display.

12. Malaysia Day

Malaysia Day. Credit: Kelantan Jottings / Wikimedia Commons

Not to be confused with Merdeka Day, Malaysia Day is celebrated on September 16th to commemorate the formation of Malaysia in 1963 when the Federation of Malaya united with Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore (which later left in 1965).

This day is significant as it marks the birth of the nation as we know it today, emphasizing unity and the rich diversity that defines Malaysia. Celebrations take place across the country with various cultural performances, concerts, and official ceremonies.

13. Awal Muharram

Awal Muharram, also known as Maal Hijrah, marks the Islamic New Year and is a significant observance for Muslims all around the world. This day commemorates the migration (Hijrah) of Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, symbolizing the beginning of the Islamic lunar calendar.

In Malaysia, Awal Muharram is a public holiday celebrated with various religious and community activities. Muslims attend prayers at mosques, where sermons focus on the themes of reflection and renewal. Many participate in charity events, donating to those in need as a way to start the new year with acts of kindness and compassion. 

14. Nuzul Quran

Koran. Credit: Cezary Piwowarski / Wikimedia Commons

Nuzul Quran, observed by Muslims, celebrates the revelation of the first verses of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. This significant event, believed to have occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, is marked with reverence and reflection.

In Malaysia, Nuzul Quran is a public holiday in several states. The day is observed with special prayers and Quranic recitations at mosques.

15. Israk Mikraj

Israk Mikraj, another Muslim celebration, marks the miraculous night journey and ascension of Prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem (Israk) and then ascended to the heavens (Mikraj) in a single night.

This event, commemorated on the 27th day of Rajab, holds deep spiritual significance and is observed with special prayers and sermons at mosques.

Additional Tips

During peak holiday seasons, especially around major festivals, domestic travel within Malaysia can be extremely busy as people flock to their hometowns or go on family vacations. Roads are congested and tickets are either overpriced or sold out. If you have to travel during the holidays, consider these tips:

  1. Plan Early: Book your flights, accommodations, and transportation well in advance, as flights and hotels tend to fill up quickly, so early planning can save you both money and stress.

  2. Be Flexible with Dates: If possible, consider traveling a few days before or after the peak holiday dates to avoid the rush and potentially lower costs.

  3. Travel Off-Peak: If your schedule allows, opt for traveling during non-peak hours or days. For example, consider traveling mid-week and in the middle of the night.

  4. Stay Informed: Keep track of public holiday dates and local events that may affect your travel plans. Check for any road closures, festivals, or special events happening in your destination that could impact travel routes and accommodations availability.

  5. Check Your Vehicle: If you’re driving, expect heavy traffic. Bring enough food and drinks. Ensure your vehicle has enough fuel and is well-maintained for a smooth journey.

  6. Consider Alternative Destinations: Explore less crowded destinations or off-the-beaten-path locations within Malaysia that offer unique experiences without the crowds.

Final Thoughts

Beyond the well-known festivals like the ones mentioned above, there’s a whole mix of smaller and regional holidays that add even more flavor to the year, such as Easter, Chap Goh Mei, Federal Territory Day, and the kings’ birthdays.

These celebrations not only showcase Malaysia’s rich heritage but also offer everyone a chance to join in, enjoy, and learn about the country’s vibrant traditions, whether you’re a local or a foreigner, and whether you’re exploring bustling cities or remote villages.

Have you taken part in any of these celebrations before? What was your experience like? Share in the comment section below.

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