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Three Chances to Enter the New Year

For most Cambodians the calendar New Year is no big deal, not much cause for celebration moving from 2016 into 2017. It warrants half a day off from work, if that, maybe a firecracker or two at the local canteen. Chinese New Year in February, however, is celebrated—with moon cakes and altar offerings. The whole family is invited—including the dead grandmothers and grandfathers.

In mid-April Khmer New Year is religiously celebrated for three days, and many Cambodians take an annual holiday at this time. Schools are closed for nearly three weeks. It is the traditional Solar New Year in this part of the world: Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and parts of India share this holiday, which is flanked by harvesting, then planting rice—the bridge between hot season and rainy season. It also coincides with the hottest month of year in Cambodia, so many take time off to visit relatives on the coast or at cooler higher elevations.

Khmer New Year and Chinese New Year share the ritual of burning ephemera. At the same market stall where you find red candles and incense you can buy paper representations of all earthly delights—cars and mansions, cash and clothes. These paperdoll-like effigies are burned for the ancestors, so they can travel the sprit realm in style. Fake American $20 and $100 bills and cardboard credit cards are preferred. The reasoning follows current worldwide monetary trends. The dollar can be exchanged most anywhere in the world. Not so with Cambodian riel.

With your ancestors supplied with cash, credit, and a Mercedes in the ether, you can rest assured your luck in the earthly realm will be good. It’s a spiritual pay-it-forward plan, a way to manifest happiness for the whole clan. Along with burning ephemera, family altars are festooned with flowers and candles. Favorite foods, like coconut, banana, and canned condensed milk are displayed. Later, the food will be eaten. (Ghosts can’t eat real food, naturally.)

This affirmation practice is not so far from our Western ritual of making New Year’s Resolutions. Or my California hometown friends setting intentions and writing down goals. But whereas Americans usually set personal goals: to lose ten pounds, find a new job, or soulmate, the Khmer New Year tradition sets family goals. The greeting in Khmer is “Choul Chanam Thmey” which translates as “Enter New Year”—we do it together.

It’s interesting that nearly every culture has a Fresh Start ritual, whether it’s for the New Year or a new season. Part of my family tradition in the states is to choose a word for the New Year. I offer this ritual to you, if you’d like to play. Your chosen word represents a seed-thought or intention. Something one wishes to keep in mind moving through the next twelve months. Last year my word was Adapt. I used that word quite a bit, actually. This year I will take as my word a variation of the Khmer New Year greeting—to enter. My word this year is Access.

How do you acknowledge the New Year? What will be your word?

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