The Lawa New Year was celebrated in early December after all the rice was harvested and the weather began to cool down. The date varies every year and is decided by the elders and community leaders when there is a rest between harvest and planting seasons. Instead of champagne, glitter and confetti, the Lawa celebrated with bamboo spirit houses, traditional clothing, chickens, pigs, and of course, rice whiskey. Spirits and ghosts are an important part of Buddhist beliefs, and even relate back to some hill-tribe Animists beliefs before the spread of Buddhism, and are taken very seriously as part of the Lawa culture. The ceremony is performed as an offering to the Mountain and River Ghosts to ensure a bountiful harvest, protect the village, and bring good luck to the people for the next year.
The day begins with each family cooking food as an offering for the day. The families prepared a meal of: a full boiled chicken, one boiled egg, white rice, ginger root, salt and pepper, all arranged on a platter of banana leaves.
While the food was cooking, the men gathered to make the spirit houses and clear the grounds for all the offerings. I asked if I could help to make the spirit houses but that was considered the “Men’s work” and it was important for them to prepare properly. The men chopped and stripped the bamboo, built 2 small houses, laid down the mats for the offerings and boiled a big pot of water to cook the pig in for the whole village. When the houses were completed, the men carried them up to the site on the mountainside and blessed them before putting them in the earth.
One of the most beautiful parts of the day was seeing the people in full Lawa dress. The women wear black knee length skirts with red, pink or purple stripes, a loose white shirt with colored stitching, and orange, red and yellow beaded necklaces and earrings. The young girls wore the same but with black shirts. Even as the falang (foreigner) I got to dress in the Lawa clothes myself! The women insisted on the leg warmers because it is their cold season and adorned me with the full jewelry.
The men traditionally wear white linen pants with a white jacket that ties in the front, red or bright pink cloth around their head and tied in the back, and a string necklace tossed over the right shoulder. The men also have swords or machetes for chopping the bamboo and killing the animals, and they are also given to the younger boys to learn the “men’s work” or have fun with a pretend sword fight!
As part of the offering to the spirits, one live chicken and one pig from the village were blessed and tied to trees during the ceremony. Afterwards the animals were killed separately and a few pieces of meat were left for the mountain while the rest was eaten by the people that afternoon. Luckily that was also the men’s work and I did not get to see the ritual slaughter, which I was ok with…
The main ceremony took place in a small clearing on the mountain side overlooking some of the village and the farms. About 40 families came in Lawa Dress with their fully prepared meal for the mountain spirits. Two chosen elders rubbed leaves on the chicken and pig, and poured two shots of whiskey to put with the spirit houses. They then removed one of the legs from each chicken to leave for the mountain and the rest we took back for lunch. The ritual was spoken mostly in Lavua (the Lawa dialect for the village) along with Buddhist blessings in Thai.
After the first ceremony on the mountainside, the elder women went down to a small clearing near the river to make the second offering. Similar to the mountain offerings, the women prepared plates of food with a mix of rice, potatoes, oranges, chilies, chicken, tea leaves, seeds and flowers; a mix of the successful harvest they had for the year and praying for the same bounty for the next year. Each plate is prepared with a small bowl of rice whiskey, which is poured over the food before given to the river.
After the food is blessed and the chicken and pig are sacrificed, families head back home to eat and celebrate. The main food is a dish called “Sap-bluahk” which is the blessed chickens chopped into small pieces (head, feet, bones and all) and mixed with fresh herbs and spices and eaten with rice.
Although not every family celebrated the occasion (some Christians have stripped their beliefs in spirits and ghosts) there was enough food for anybody who wanted no matter if they participated in the ceremony or not. When I asked what about the other families, one of the elders responded with “No matter Buddhist or Christian we are all the same family and everybody eats.” This absolutely amazed me. The village is split, half Buddhist and half Christian or Catholic, but religious differences aside it is more important to take care of each other and live peacefully together. This is just a small testament to the true community that is formed in the village and the respect and love that they have for all people. The rest of the day was reserved for time with family, friends and neighbors to eat and drink together. I was offered food and whiskey at every house I went to visit and was taken care of like one of their own.
This year the Thai calendar turned to 2556, following the Buddhist and Lunar calendars. So whether you rang in 2013 or 2556, and celebrated with a countdown or a spirit offering, I hope everyone has a very happy and healthy New Year!