Symbols and Secrets
Celebrations in Singapore, as elsewhere, are heightened by eye-catching decorations. And behind the colourful flourishes lie meaning and symbolism.
By Grace Li
Festive decor today is brighter than ever with new materials, bolder colours and even blinking LED lights. However jazzed up, though, the decor still harks back to tradition, revealing the universal hopes and dreams of each culture. Look hard enough and you’ll see it in the evergreen festive favourites of Singapore’s main races, a lovely reminder to Singaporeans of our roots and diversity as a people.
COMPASSION AND ONENESS
The Hindus believe that Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, only enters homes adorned with rangoli. These vivid and intricate motifs adorn many Indian household entrances during weddings and Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. The ancient tradition came to Singapore with migrant Indians more than a century ago. The art is said to predate even painting and sculpture. Rangoli features intricate geometric designs intended to trap negative energy within the home to protect the inhabitants and remind them to stay positive.
In Sanskrit, rangoli means “an array of colours”. Also known as the kolam, it is traditionally drawn freehand by the lady of the house with ground, dyed rice flour. It is “painted” with rice flour because it is
meant as food for the different creatures and birds that come to the house. It is one way the Hindus show compassion in their belief that ‘the world is one’. Rangoli today come in vivid colours. Stencils aid their drawing, and designs include flowers and birds. Small, time pressed modern households tend to paste stickers of intricate flower and leaf motifs at the entrances of their homes to symbolise the rangoli.
ABUNDANCE AND HAPPINESS
Chinese paper cuts are commonly pasted on doors of Chinese homes during weddings, Chinese New Year and other auspicious occasions. These lacy cutouts are made from deep red paper, and their motifs are loaded with symbolism for attracting good fortune to the household. Popular motifs include the Chinese characters for prosperity (繁荣), luck (福) and double happiness (囍), as well as images of the dragon and phoenix. The craft also replicates auspicious scenes from everyday life like farming, playing children or fishing. These images are equivalent to the Chinese characters for wealth, longevity and happiness. For instance, a cutting featuring a dragon, signifying a male, and a phoenix, symbolising the female, represents a happy union. A design with a peach offers wishes for longevity, while an image of a cheerful child cradling a fish symbolises wealth.
This traditional folk practice dates back to AD 386, believed to have started as patterns for lacquer painting and embroidery. They are also used to decorate offerings to the gods or departed ancestors.
BURSTS OF JOY
Bearers of resplendent sprays of bunga manggar escort the bride and groom to their places at Malay weddings. In the old days, sprays of tiny coconut palm blossoms were tied around poles to create extravagant but delicate floral bursts evocative of showers of joy. “Bunga manggar” means “coconut palm flower”. It was one way the coconut palm, considered “a tree of 100 uses”, was appreciated by coastal Malays of yore. Today, these festive sprays live on brighter than ever, crafted from colourful crepe paper and tinsel, and wrapped around a slivered rod from a coconut frond rib or some similarly fine stick. Several feathery rods are tied together to the end of a pole to resemble a massive spray of flowers. Today, these decorations are also popular for ushering the arrival of distinguished guests at events.
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