Although the Gregorian calendar was widely adopted as the international standard to avoid confusion and eliminate the need for conversion, many cultural festivities still coincide with traditional seasons and astrological signs. This is especially common with New Year’s celebrations; although the majority of nations formally recognize the beginning of a calendar year on the first of January, many rituals recognizing the new year follow older customs and therefore correspond with other Gregorian dates.
Such is the case with Songkran, the nation-wide New Year’s celebration of Thailand. Because Thailand did not officially recognize January 1 as the first of the year until 1940, traditional celebrations (originally based on the position of the sun) still take precedence. Now celebrated between the thirteenth and fifteenth of April, the Songkran festival is a unique tradition particularly because of when it is held.
Mid-April falls at the hottest time of year in Southeast Asia. Consequently, Songkran typically arrives at the end of Thailand’s dry season and marks the highest temperatures of the year. As a result, the festival has essentially become a large-scale water fight, with complete strangers dousing one another in the streets. Most residents, who are given time off from work, and visitors spend the holiday carrying a bucket or a water gun, seizing any opportunity to soak passersby.
While throwing water serves as a friendly, and cooling, gesture in modern celebrations of Songkran, its association with the celebration holds more traditional roots. In preparation for the new year, it is customary to thoroughly clean one’s home and property. Public temples and statues of Buddha are also cleaned during Songkran, and an early tradition involved catching water that had been used to clean these religious monuments, then gently pouring it over elders as a sign of respect and blessing. Younger generations began taking liberties with this practice, until throwing water became the hallmark of Songkran. Similarly, wet chalk used by monks to write temporary blessings at religious sites is now smeared over strangers in the streets.
Although traditional practices remain, today’s celebrations of Songkran are much better known for revelry than religion. Temple-goers are far outnumbered by those flocking to the streets and bars. Beauty and talent pageants have become more popular attractions than statues of Buddha. Nevertheless, important aspects of Songkran have been preserved. Many people take the holiday to return to their hometowns, reuniting with family and friends to celebrate the coming year. Reverence for elders is still highly valued. Water can still be seen as a sign of cleansing and purification. And most importantly, the holiday promotes solidarity, bringing complete strangers together in celebration.
This unity extends beyond Thailand, as several other nations in Southeast Asia celebrate Songkran as well (although each has its own name for the holiday). Water festivals take place in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and parts of China and India. Of course specific traditions and practices vary between nations, but the basic purpose and spirit of Songkran remain unchanged across borders. Like any celebration of the new year, it is a time of jubilation and hope for the future.