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Alahamady Be : The Malagasy New Year

Photo : Flick user Amélie-Tiana Ernoult

Alahamady Be : The Malagasy New Year

The Malagasy New Year (literally translated into Malagasy as Taom-baovao Malagasy) is a national and popular holiday that has been resurgent since the early 1990s.

Nicolas Madagascar expert

Traditionally, January 1 marks the beginning of a new year. This day marks the first day of the Gregorian and Julian calendars and is widely celebrated as a holiday across the globe, including Madagascar. It is worth noting, however, that Madagascar had its own New Year’s celebration known as “Alahamady Be” or “Taom-baovao Malagasy” prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar during French colonisation. Unfortunately, this one-of-a-kind celebration has faded into obscurity over time.

Growing up, I remember attending two New Year’s Eve parties each year. The first was the traditional January 1 celebration, and the second was the Malagasy New Year, which usually occurred on March 21. The Malagasy New Year is a truly special occasion that brings families together to enjoy traditional Hira Gasy music and celebrate their unique cultural heritage. In stark contrast, the January 1 New Year’s celebration often feels like a copy of European traditions.

When do we celebrate the Malagasy New Year?
Malagasy Dancer
Malagasy Dancer

Photo : Flick user Ariniaina

The traditional Malagasy New Year, or “Alahamady be,” is celebrated in Madagascar every March. The first full moon of the year occurs the night before New Year’s Day. The Malagasy ephemeris, which is based on star movement, is important in determining the timing of this celebration. The Malagasy people see space-time as being intertwined with destiny, which governs their socio-cultural universe. The festival’s date varies year to year, depending on the lunar calendar and the harvest season. The year typically lasts 354 days and is divided into 12 lunar months of 28 days each. The Malagasy week begins on Thursday and ends on Wednesday.

The New Year’s celebration lasts several days and includes a wide range of activities, including dancing, music, hira gasy performances, traditional games, lantern displays, kabary speeches, and an abundance of zebu meat.

How does the Malagasy New Year unfold?

Photo : Flick user Rodolphe Toots

The Malagasy New Year is a meaningful ritual that represents forgiveness, generosity, and optimism for the future. It serves as an opportunity for reconciliation and bonding between different generations of people. Historically, the arrival of the New Year meant widespread forgiveness for all previous grievances, whether they were between spouses, relatives, or even the entire community or between leaders and their subjects.

This festival is rich in symbols, such as light, which represents the dispelling of darkness, water, which purifies and reconciles, rice and honey, which represent life and abundance, and meat, which is shared (called “nofon-kena mitam-pihavanana”) among people who are nationals and descendants of the same locality, thereby strengthening their kinship bonds. Furthermore, it is customary to abstain from eating meat and slaughtering zebu the day before the holiday period begins.

Since when is this holiday practised?
Malagasy Calendar
Malagasy Calendar

Alahamady Be has been a beloved tradition since the 16th century, when King Ralambo instituted it to commemorate his birthday. It became associated with Kings Day over time, as many of his successors were born around the same time of year. The date was even changed to November by Queen Ranavalona III to coincide with her own birthday. Despite the introduction of Christianity, some families continued to observe this holiday. Various ministers and notable figures attempted to resurrect the official celebration of this holiday in recent decades, but their efforts were futile.

However, thanks to the efforts of numerous organisations, Alahamady Be is once again celebrated by many people across Madagascar. There appears to be a growing desire among the populace to reclaim their traditional customs and reconnect with their roots.

Read the Madagascar Travel Guide by Nicolas

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