As many of you know, Asian cultures give greater deference and respect to the elderly in their populations than most Western cultures. I realize that is a sweeping generalization and there are, of course, individual exceptions. But one of the most beautiful aspects of the Songkran Festival, which celebrates the Thai New Year, is the ceremony that honors the elderly, called Pittee Wa Puh Awuhso or Pittee Dum Hua. In this ceremony, the young demonstrate their respect for the elderly (mother and father, grandmother and grandfather) and the elderly, in turn, give a blessing to the young. At First Church Chiang Mai, this ceremony c0mes at the close of worship (just before the benediction) on the Sunday that falls during the Songkran Festival.
Yesterday, everyone over the age of 70 was given a special seat in the church (in the first five rows) and those pews were moved back to make room for those who would be performing the ceremony honoring them. At the beginning of the ceremony, three young women, dressed in Northern Thai costumes, walked down the three aisles of the church to the center of the sanctuary in front of the chancel area. They then performed a dance to the sounds of a live Thai chamber group performing on Thai instruments. During the dance, they sprinkled rose petals liberally around the front of the sanctuary. Some of those rose petals landed on the elderly in the first few rows of the sanctuary. When the dance ended, the dancers exited down one of the side aisles, as a new group prepared to enter the sanctuary.
The new group was comprised of pairs of young people – young men and young women. The men carried gifts for the elderly, while the women carried ornate silver bowls filled with perfumed water and, draped over their arms were necklaces created by stringing Dok Mali buds together. Dok Mali is a very fragrant tiny flower that is often used for sacred purposes. It is still possible to find women by the side of the road who string these flowers together to make floral offerings for the temple. Tourists often buy them because they are so beautiful and smell so wonderful. On Songkran, the strand of Dok Mali is considered a symbol of the Thai New Year. Wearing a Dok Mali necklace during Songkran in Thailand would be the equivalent of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in the South in the USA.
Once everyone was in place, poems were read that spoke of the honor and respect the elderly deserve and the privilege of participating in this ceremony for those young men and women (as well as those sponsoring the ceremony). Once the poems had been read, the young people went row-by-row to demonstrate their respect for all the elderly who were present. First, the young woman presents her armful of Dok Mali necklaces and the elderly person selects one and puts it around his/her neck.
Then, the young woman presents the ornate silver bowl filled with perfumed water. The elderly person dips both hands in the bowl and gently touches his/her own head. After that, the elderly person dips their hands in the water again. This time, he/she gently touches the shoulders (or, if they know them well, the head) of the young woman and man, conferring a blessing on them for their demonstration of respect. Then, the young man presents a gift, which at yesterday’s ceremony was a beautiful cloth tote bag embroidered with flowers.
When every elderly person had received this demonstration of respect and gift, there were two speeches – one by an elderly man and one by an elderly woman. The man began his speech by defining the elderly (60-70 = old, 70-80= very old, 81 and over = totally decrepit), which got a laugh. The woman, who claimed to be 90 and therefore totally decrepit, read a poem that gave honor to the young who honor their elders. After the benediction, a lunch was served at the church. Only the elderly were allowed to sit in the air-conditioned room (and it was a VERY hot day). After the lunch, which had Thai sticky rice and a Burmese curry, everyone left. As Mom walked toward the parking lot, she was met by an old friend, Ajarn Arun, who worked with Mom and Dad at a retreat center on the beach south of Hua Hin in two of the five short-term mission assignments in Thailand after their retirement from full-time mission service. He and his wife, Urah, whom Mom sat with during the service of worship (see thumbnail below), were two of their closest friends on the mission field. It was truly a blessed day for Mom.