A Northern Thai Wedding
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Ban (our niece) and Saek (sounds like Sack) had a stripped-down wedding a week before Christmas. Here’s what I saw and how it differed from more elaborate Thai weddings.
Arrangements were made when Saek’s family came from Payao to visit with Ban’s family in Jom Jaeng, Sanpatong outside of Chiang Mai. Both families included the parents and responsible elders, usually aunts and uncles. The gathering took place in an empty room with everyone sitting on mats on the floor, all on the same level within eyesight of everyone else. Saek’s uncle, representing the groom’s side of the family, began the conversation by commenting on the two young people having chosen each other. There was a chorus of agreement. Clearly the emphasis was on a cheerful consensus. “They love each other,” he said. The room echoed with happy expressions of agreement. Step by step the conversation ambled through the familiar platitudes with all voices blending in harmony. Many meetings are more sedate. The thing needed in this one was not only agreement, but enthusiasm. There must be no doubt that this is a joint arrangement. It is a merger of two clans that have only this one point of contact. Saek stared at the ceiling, the floor, the open windows, anywhere but into anyone’s eyes. Ban got busy passing water glasses around. Someone handed the uncle a slip of paper which he stared at intensely for a few seconds before handing it to Saek’s father. Ban’s aunt spoke up, “This is all for the young couple.” Heads nodded. Talk never faltered but turned to what auspicious day to have the wedding. It was now about “when” rather than “whether”. Calendars were needed and Saek, with a look of profound relief left the room to find one to sort out good dates for undertaking a major life enterprise. In short order it was agreed that the wedding would be as simple as can be, right there at home, in the morning a week later, with a meal fixed by neighbors. It seemed to be all tied up, so lunch was served.
One extravagance was allowed when wedding plans were proceeding. The living room was to be decorated with a backdrop festooned with flowers.
Before dawn on wedding day, the bride and her mother had their “hair done” and got cosmetic treatment. The bride and groom had rented traditional outfits that were specifically for weddings only in the sense that they were matching white with gold threads. All was ready soon after dawn except the wedding meal, and that was well under way.
Then waiting began filled with fussing about whether something had been forgotten.
At about ten in the morning the groom’s family arrived and was met down the lane to be accompanied to the bride’s house. Play-acting is part of a wedding. Certain vestiges of custom were re-enacted. First, the groom and his entourage made their arrival clear. A grander wedding might have a band of musicians and firecrackers. In this case there were just a few whoops and shouts. At the bride’s front gate two of the bride’s friends holding a gold chain blocked the path. It was up to the groom’s mother to bargain with the gate-keepers. They dropped the chain for a hundred baht ($3) but in other weddings the right to pass can be more expensive. Often there are games played in which a phony bride is presented or the real bride is hidden away. Innovation is what keeps this interesting. It can take a lot of time and be loads of fun, particularly if the principal players are plied with alcohol. There were only 3 chains blocking the way to Ban.
Then the wedding began with the 2 families seated on opposite sides of the wedding area. First the groom’s parents presented the bride’s parents with gifts the bride’s family had disclosed they required (on that piece of paper that was not directly discussed on the day of arrangements). In a more elaborate wedding this might have been a separate ceremony at a different place, even on a different day. Saek’s parents presented a red jewelry case and a gift of cash wrapped in a red net cloth. They had been carried in on two small tray tables elaborately decorated with tiny flowers and folded petals symbolizing several aspects of a successful marriage. The groom opened the jewelry box his parents had (presumably) provided and gave a gold chain, bracelet, and ring to the bride. She gave him a gold ring from the same box. Diamond rings are not traditional, but that’s changing. The bride’s mother untied the cash and spread it out appreciatively and then carried it on her shoulder into the bridal chamber (bedroom nearby). She was repeating in action what an aunt had implied at the arrangement meeting -- that this cash was for the newlyweds.
[In only a small way was this a “bride price” as it is described by anthropologists. The idea is not that the bride is being purchased and paid for, but that the bride’s mother is being compensated. The Thai narrative is all about repaying the mother for her “milk” given to her daughter. Milk, of course, is a metaphor for the whole effort of gestation and child-rearing. But it underscores Thai veneration of mothers. Boys traditionally repay their mothers for their milk by being ordained and transferring merit to their mothers. (Here is a link to a blog about this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/why-be-a-short-term-monk)]
This was all preliminary to the actual wedding. Up to now the wedding had been about gaining consent and agreement. Then, in a short ceremonious way, the bride and groom paid honor, kneeling to their parents in turn. This can involve an exchange of leis and floral rings, but not this time.
The bride and groom were escorted to seats (much like prie-dieux) behind a low coffee table. They were side by side. Next to them was a traditional bai sri flower arrangement. [Here is a link to a blog about this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/calling-for-kwan ] At no point in any traditional Thai wedding do the bride and groom exchange vows or necessarily say anything at all. For this simple ceremony there was no professional leader to chant a blessing or to anoint the couple with white clay dots on their foreheads. The fathers did the honors of entwining the couple’s heads with a cord that in some literal and symbolic way “tied the knot.” Thus they were wedded.
The validity of the wedding consists of the express wishes of the bride and groom (no Thai wedding is initiated without it in this day and age), and the express agreement of the two clans without which sustaining the marriage would be doubtful. In effect, it is entirely up to the two families to ratify the marriage, which needs no religious or governmental authority to be authentic and durable. It is not part of a Northern Thai Buddhist wedding to have priests involved, although a couple might go to a temple for the same sort of blessing people would get on birthdays or other auspicious occasions. This is in sharp contrast to Christian weddings, including Christian weddings in Thailand, where the church presides and the wedding is about a contract between the bride and groom with the church’s oversight, with the church acting in Western cultures also as an agent for the state. The couple may go to the district office and register their marriage. This provides legal authority for a couple to act as a unit to claim government benefits or to buy and sell property, for example. But a couple is just as married in the eyes of society and the law if they do not do that. Ban and Saek have not yet registered their marriage.
The formal ceremony continued with tying white cords on the wrists of the bride and groom. That is designed to include everyone in bestowing blessings and gifts. The gifts were cash in envelopes deposited in a heart-shaped paper-mache box situated in front of the couple. Sometimes the gift was handed to the bride who slipped it into the box. If there had been an announcer, people would have been invited to come forward by groups; people knew the routine at this little wedding. The normal order of seniority begins with grandparents and then by age, relationship, and social rank until no one is left out. Each person takes a length of white cotton cord consisting of 9 strands, and ties it onto the wrist of one or both of the couple while wishing them well, either in ordinary words or in a traditional chant.
Dinner was being distributed by this time. So it was just the parents and a couple of the most senior close relatives who symbolically led the couple into their bridal chamber. The bed had been specially prepared and was to be strewn with flower petals. The couple was seated on the bed and given marriage instructions. Although it can be entertaining and moving, Ban and Saek’s parents skipped this formality. The couple was provided their first meal as a married couple and symbolically bedded for a few short minutes.
That concluded the re-enactment of the traditional Northern Thai Wedding.
In this wedding we noticed that pictures were taken, but unlike larger weddings photography was neither intrusive nor were any aspects of the wedding set up for the sake of pictures. The bride was not the star as in weddings where everything is all about her on her big day. No mention was made of placating spirits in the supernatural realm, although the jao thii was no doubt informed that Saek would be moving into the house; it was not part of the wedding. No aspect of religion was part of the wedding.
Everything after that was party. The 70 guests had lunch paid for by the bride’s family, with help from the gifts in the heart-shaped box. Many weddings have another party at night that might include a feast and speeches by dignitaries as well as an interview of the couple and a professional video about their romantic life. If these are in a major hotel the cost can skyrocket. Ban and Saek didn’t have any of that.
A traditional Northern Thai wedding happens when a couple asks their extended families to agree to their marriage.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.