Hmong New Year
For many young Hmong, the New Year celebration is a time to choose a mate, and so this holiday is closely tied to another occasion for celebration; the wedding. In Laos, young Hmong men and women often marry a month or two after the New Year. This is an adaptation to life in the highlands, where the young live far from each other and travel is not easy, and where the farming lifestyle does not allow much time away from the elders during which to meet new people.
The holiday which marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new is a time for parents to rest and enjoy the fruits of their labor, while the young amuse themselves with and express their talents through a variety of games and similar activities. Music is played on the qeej, a bamboo flute; and there is singing and play with tops and balls and even bullfighting-like activities. Most importantly, the Hmong New Year is a time to begin anew with a carefree spirit. Tasty food is abundant, and guests are invited from far away to dine with friends and family members not seen for a long time. Relief from the ordinary cares of life is the order of the day.
On the night before the festival, a soul calling is performed. Afterward, the father of each family will invite the spirits of ancestors to visit and enjoy dinner. Then, on the day of the celebration, a long rope is fashioned from thatch; one end is tied high on a center pole, and the other end fastened to the ground. Holding a chicken in his hands, an elder man waves it over the heads of those who pass under the rope in order to bless them with good health in the coming year.
The Hmong observe a few simple “New Year’s Resolutions” during the festival and for a short period afterward. For good luck in the coming year, it is considered essential to eat only meat and rice for three days. Those who eat vegetables, it is said, may disable themselves from obtaining sufficient meat throughout the year; of course, this implies difficulties in raising livestock. It is also considered unlucky to eat rice soup during this same three days. Those who do so may encounter hardships with the coming year’s rice crop.
Since the selection of a partner made at the New Year celebration leads so often to marriage, the wedding celebration is considered in the same context. For the bride and groom, a wedding is a transition to adult responsibilities. Once married, social interaction is limited to more adult forms than before, especially for women. Since it is Hmong tradition that a new bride moves in with the groom’s family, this family gains a valuable, new family member, and the newlywed couple is expected to fulfill the roles of a well-behaved son and daughter-in-law. In this way, dramatic changes are felt by the bride and the family she has left. While the bride’s old family has lost a helper in work and a companion in leisure, the bride must make a sometimes difficult transition as she joins a new family and seeks to form her own.
She must assume her new family’s spiritual traditions, which will differ in some respects from those she has known, and she must wear the new family’s traditional costume and speak the new family’s dialect, which is sometimes different from her own. Most importantly, she must bear children. As for the groom and his parents, they now have a new addition to the family and are responsible for teaching her their expectations and way of life.
As compensation for all the bride must endure in assuming her new duties, and to ensure their earnest intention to treat the bride well, as well as to recognize the effort expended by the bride’s parents in raising a daughter, the groom’s family makes an offering to them of money and/or gifts. The bride’s family, meanwhile, give as lavishly to the newlyweds as they are able, bestowing cash, household items, clothes, and jewelry in order to support the young couple in building their life together. As is customary during the Hmong New Year Celebration, certain restrictions are observed on the day of the wedding; for example, hot peppers are not allowed at table lest the marriage be troubled by arguments caused by hot tempers!
After two young Hmong decide to marry, the groom and his parents bear the primary responsibility for the planning of the wedding. A team representing the groom’s family interest must be organized for the ritual journey to the bride’s home to greet the bride’s parents, negotiate gifts, and bring the bride back to his home. Often this “journey” is a short one, and symbolic only. Occasionally it is long, for the bride may live in another village several hours’ walk from that of the groom. In any case, a picnic lunch will be prepared and enjoyed along the way – whether the journey requires fifteen minutes, six hours or a whole day.
Another traditional observance is the ritual “packing of three chickens.” These cooked delicacies are utilized in the course of the wedding ceremony; one as a spiritual offering and two for consumption. Rice and salt will be packed, and blankets included for the convenience of guests. Traditional costumes are worn to and from the home of the bride’s parents, and the bride’s brother will be asked to play the qeej flute as a send off for the wedding party as they return to the groom’s home. Such customs as these originated in early times, when the homes of bride and groom were often not only separated by long distances, but when travel in the highlands of Southeast Asia was even more difficult and uncertain than presently.
Although guests at the festivities may number in the dozens or more, thirteen people make up the wedding party itself. These are: 1. the bride; 2. the groom; 3. the best man; 4. the bridesmaid; 5&6. the bride’s marriage negotiators; 7&8. the groom’s marriage negotiators; 9. the groom’s delegated parent; 10. the bride’s delegated parent; 11. the groom’s brother; 12. the bride’s brother; 13. one elder. Interactions between these principals will be extremely romantic, and even poetic, in nature, for all such interchanges are, by tradition, musical. In fact, at a Hmong wedding everything is done in song. There is a song to ask the bride’s parents to open the door as the wedding procession arrives; there is a song to be performed while setting up a table at which the marriage negotiators will sit; there are songs to invite parents, songs to introduce the marriage negotiators to one another, songs for literally everything!
It will come as no surprise, therefore, that a Hmong wedding is a prolonged affair, and takes a great deal of time to finish. After the bride leaves her parents’ home, there are still four more steps to be completed before the wedding is final. These are, 1) the introduction of the bride to the spirits of the groom’s ancestors; 2) the notification of the bride’s parents of the bride’s whereabouts; 3) the soul calling on the third morning; and, 4) the post-wedding.
The first of these is when the bride and groom arrive at the groom’s house for the first time. The groom calls his father or an elder man to the door and asks him to perform a welcoming ritual to transfer the
bride’s allegiance from the spirits of her parents’ ancestors to the spirits of the groom’s ancestors. The second step is to deliver a message from the groom family to the bride’s parents; if the wedding was secretly initiated and the bride leaves her parents’ home to the groom family without anyone seeing. This message notices the bride’s parents that they should look for their daughter no more, since she is now eternally to be found with the groom’s family. The third step occurs on the third day after the bride’s arrival at her new home. On this day, a soul calling is conducted to welcome the new arrival. Finally, the groom’s family will perform a specific ritual of thanksgiving to express gratitude to all the wedding negotiators or assistants. This is the post-wedding, and, with this, the marriage is complete and the girl becomes a wife. As a symbol of her new status, she will remove forever the black and white striped cloth – called a civ ceeb – from her turban. This striped cloth has been symbolically tied to an umbrella that has accompanied the wedding ritual from day one. This is a symbol of the union of man and wife, for, when the wedding ritual is over, the civ ceeb is untied from the umbrella, and the new bride opens it over her husband to signify that the two young lovers now shelter eternally under one roof. Forever afterward, as Western women wear a wedding ring, the traditional Hmong woman will signal her married status by wearing her turban without the black and white stripe.
Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004.