New Year's eve ceremony (Nee Saw Ko)
"Nee Saw Ko," is Karen for "New Year's eve." This tradition is put on each year during the month of January, following the end of season harvest. New Year's is a very important event for the Karen, as it is the time of year when friends and relatives who have moved away, either for work or because of marriage, will all return home to celebrate. Essential items which should be prepared before the big day include:
- All different kinds of desserts, such as sweet boiled sticky rice, sweet sticky rice in bamboo, rice mixed with sweets and fats, etc. These desserts will be used in a ceremony to pay homage and respect to the spirits.
- Alcohol for use in the ceremonies and for drinking together afterwards.
On the night of New Year's eve, the religious leader--which the Karen refer to as the "Hee Ko"--will call the villagers to commune together. Each house is expected to send one representative to the event. The representative should be the head of the household and must be a man. Each head of household will be expected to bring a bottle of alcohol to the gathering at the religious leader's house (Hee Ko). Once everyone has arrived with the alcohol the religious leader will begin the ceremony. The ceremony is called, "consuming the first alcohol" (Aw see ko), and begins with gathering all of the bottles together before the Hee Ko. The Hee Ko will utter a petitionary prayer and then drizzle the alcohol into a glass, after which everyone will be invited to drink in procession. The bottles will be opened in accordance to the order in which they arrived. The Hee Ko will be the first one to take a sip and then the glass will be passed around, with each person taking a sip, until it has made its way around to everyone and returned to the Hee Ko. The Hee Ko will pour out any remaining alcohol in the glass while reciting a prayer of petition and asking for blessing for the host, the owner of the bottle of alcohol and his family. The process will be repeated with each successive bottle until everyone in attendance has been blessed. Sometimes, if the village is particularly large, the ceremony may go on into the morning.
New Year's morning
Karen will wake up bright and early to begin making preparations for all the ceremonies to be held the next day. Chickens and pigs will be killed for use as sacrificial offerings. They will be set on a knee-high table along with a bottle of alcohol. Next, a ceremony will be performed to call to the spirits of one's children and grandchildren. The elders in the family will lead the ceremony and all members of the family will be expected to be present. The elders will begin by knocking on the table with a piece of wood as it is believed this will call the spirits back to their bodies. Next, the eleders will tie pieces of string around the wrists of their children and grandchildren while reciting a petitioningary prayer to the spirits, asking to be blessed. The petition will ask that every member of the family be able to live happily and comfortably, be free from all misfortunes, dangers, and vices, and continue in good health. After all the children have had their wrists tied, the family will dine together. After all have eaten the family will mobilize and go off in search of a party. They will go from house to house gathering people until the whole village has come together to enjoy a feast, united together. Alcohol will be poured and a prayer will be recited, asking the spirits to bless the village with the spirit of community and brotherhood. After this, everyone will drink together in merriment. Happiness and goodness will be wished on everyone in every home in the village. Of all the ceremonies held by the Karen during the New Year's festivities, the most important has to be that held on the first day of the new year. It's up to each village to decide when they will celebrate New Year's eve (Nee Saw Ko) and for how many days, but once the first day of the new year has been observed everyone will be expected to return back to work to greet the new year.
All of the above refers to Buddhist Karen (Aw Kae), but there are also a great many Karen who are Christian. The New Year's observances of this latter group are very similar, only they will be adapted to suit their Christian beliefs. The festival will start with everyone going to church and praying. Afterwards, everyone will eat together. Bellies full and spirits high, people will bring out their rice and other items collected during the harvest in order for an assessment to be made of their monetary value. Once this item of business is out of the way, local sports competion will be held. As evening comes and sky grows dark, drama and acting will serve as entertainment for the village. No alcohol will be consumed and no one will go home drunk on this day. After the drama show is over, people will all return to their houses. During this time, villagers will each pray every night for seven straight nights. Only after these seven days have passed will it be considered a new year.