Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony

(Contributed by Mahn Kyaw Swe)

. . . "Before Buddhism or Christianity was introduced to the Karen people, our ancient ancestors and great grandmothers and grandfathers, lived in fear of different spirits. Therefore, our parents and grandparents used white thread, which they tied on the wrists of children after calling back their spirits.  It meant that the person and one's spirit would stay together and could live free from fear," one of the participants explained in English to the visitors.

People who attend the wrist tying ceremony must wear full traditional costume. The ceremony could only be sponsored by an elderly couple who had lived together as husband and wife for their entire married life.  This senior couple called upon the spirits of the children to come back from the place of darkness and to stay with parents, grandparents and relatives. The senior couple then prayed that the young children would behave themselves well, and act with good discipline and preserve our culture.  There are seven materials are used for wrist tying ceremony:

1.  A glass of cold water
2.  Three white threads
3.  Seven rice balls
4.  Seven triangular-shaped lumps of sticky rice in the packages
5.  Seven boiled bananas
6.  Seven (Paw Woung) branches of flowers
7.  Seven pieces of sugarcane

The glass of cold water means to regain peace of mind and strength, cleansing the body and mind. Water is one of the main sources of life that people and animals depend upon. As human beings, we frequently make mistakes both physically and mentally in our lives. These mistakes will be cleansed from us in the same way as we take a bath with clean water. 

The white threads represent protection of the person from misfortune and evil spirits.
The rice balls stand for being united. If rice stays separated in pieces, it would decay within short period.  If the rice is holds together in balls, it will not decay so easily and will last for a long time. 

The triangular shaped steamed sticky rice in packages represents solidarity and sharpness. The nature of sticky rice is already stick together. When sticky rice is made as triangle shaped in the banana leaf, it is stickier and sharper like a weapon. That's the way the elderly couple want their children to be united, sharp and smar t.
Bananas represent good discipline and loyalty.  Bananas grow up in a serial, orderly, and gradual way. When the banana plant produces its fruit, it starts from a single branch. Then, the fruits appear serially and in order from the main branch.  A banana tree only come to fruit once in a lifetime. If it is cut from top to bottom, small plants will come out naturally and grow increasingly. 

The branch of flowers (Paw Wee) signifies our ability to settle and grow anyplace. Other types of flowers usually dry and dies, when the season is over or weather condition are bad.  However, the Paw Wee branch of flowers can grow anywhere and in any season as long as can put down roots somewhere.  It can grow quickly and doesn't need much water.  Sugar cane presents the quality of good ethics, moral values, and racial progress.  Its original quality of sweetness never disappears no matter how the weather changes. When sugar cane plant is cut into pieces, new plants grow out from the middle link and able to grow well on any ground.

"In the past, when Karens began to get married to people from other ethnic backgrounds, they got away from traditions like this in order to avoid upsetting their spouses. And some of the spouses from different backgrounds didn't encourage their Karen spouses to join in traditional events either.   Today, not only people of Karen ethnic nationality, but also their spouses and family members from other ethnic backgrounds such as the Burman, Chinese, Malay, Mon, Shan, and Chin join their Karen spouses and show their support for preserving this lovely Karen traditional wrist tying ceremony", Mahn Shishaw said.

"By celebrating this traditional in local community event yearly, Karen people remember our culture and beautiful traditions, respect each other and forgive each other for the mistakes they may make in the past.  Everybody makes mistakes in one's life.  Forgiveness is one of the best solution in society", Saw Thaik Soe explained.  
Karen wrist tying ceremony is one of the ancient traditions of Karen people.  It is not a Karen Buddhist tradition that we maintain and celebrate, but rather a reminder to citizens of all nationalities of what we can live together in unity and strength not as Karen people but also with other ethnic nationals in a multicultural society.

Traditionally the festival takes place at the time of the August full moon, when Karen tie white threads around the wrists to ward off illness and to contribute to the continuation of Karen culture. The festival has no religious significance.