It’s that time of year again.
The atmosphere is festive. Little jingles play incessantly on the radio for the upcoming holiday. Malls are packed, their parking lots turned to traffic jams. People host festive dinners after work for co-workers and friends. Flush with their holiday bonuses, people get into the giving spirit, buying little gifts for colleagues and bigger gifts for family (and perhaps spending a little more than they should). Supermarkets are bedecked with displays of holiday-themed treats. Airlines and bus companies jack up their prices, and it’s still hard to find a ticket because everyone wants to get home to see their families. Banks and most offices close. At home, families exchange gifts, feast together, visit with neighbors, and of course, go to their places of worship.
If you are from the Western Hemisphere, this probably sounds like the week before Christmas. In Indonesia, it’s the week before Lebaran, the last week of Ramadan — commonly known in Islam as Idul Fitri (or Eid al-Fitr, as it is known in Arabic).
Like Christmas, Lebaran is a time of excitement. A jingle on Jakarta radio echoes the sentiment: “Deg-degán, deg-degán, dekat dekat Lebaran!” (“Excited, excited, it’s close, it’s close, Lebaran!”). The jingle, played as ceaselessly as any tired Christmastime tune in the U.S., leads into a live on-air quiz in which callers can win money to spend on their families this Lebaran.
Though I have spent a fair amount of time outside of the United States, I have never lived in a predominantly Muslim country, and any exposure I had to Ramadan among U.S. Muslims was muted. So it is a bit surprising to see long lines at the mall in late July (Lebaran, and Ramadan, fall in a different month each year). Even more surprising is to see the similarities between the ways this religious holiday and Christmas play out in everyday life. For example, last Sunday we made the mistake of going to a big grocery store to buy a few routine items. Every checkout line had at least 10 shoppers with carts overflowing. Would you go grocery shopping on the Sunday before Christmas if you didn’t have to? Probably not.
The week before December 25th and the week before Lebaran have two crucial differences. Muslims have been fasting from dawn to dusk for more than two weeks already, and they will do so until the last day of Ramadan. All those evening meals are for breaking fast, and are held punctually at sundown, which on the equator is always 6 p.m. Perhaps the excitement of Lebaran has as much to do with the end of the long, difficult days of fasting as as it does with seeing family and getting gifts. In addition to big sales, malls are also holding extended hours because shoppers prefer to shop once they have eaten. Another key difference from Christmas is that the actual date of Idul Fitri is up for debate among Islamic clerics until the very last minute, depending on the position of the moon. In Indonesia we expect Lebaran to fall either on the 7th or 8th of August.
The religious significance behind these two holidays is quite different. Ramadan is intended as a time to focus on God, to repent, to fast not just from food but from all worldly indulgences, to respect the month in which the Quran was revealed. Idul Fitri celebrates the end of the fast and the success of having cleansed oneself from worldly “sins.” In fact, Muslims in Indonesia often greet each other on Idul Fitri with “Forgive my physical and emotional wrongdoings.”
During both the Ramadan season in Muslim countries and the Christmas season in Christian countries, people are more likely to give to the poor or to charities. And many followers, who do not attend their place of worship most weeks, will do so on these holy days. Still it seems that, much like Christmas in the U.S., Lebaran in Indonesia has been co-opted somewhat by commercial interests. Just as Christians do, Muslims get swept up in the shopping and the pressure to spend money for their biggest holiday of the year.