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Got your plans for Hmong New Year yet? It’s happening at the end of November

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The 1981 Hmong New Year, held in St. Paul’s Highland Junior-Senior High School. Photographed by Marlin Heise on December 19, 1981.

The Hmong New Year in St. Paul is a unique annual event encapsulated into a weekend celebration held at the end of November. Since 1977, Hmong people have gathered in the city to meet, eat, celebrate the harvest, and enjoy cultural performances. Though the event is rooted in the agricultural history of the Hmong people and their religious traditions, it has found a new expression in St. Paul—the home of one of the largest communities of Hmong outside Southeast Asia.

When the first Hmong refugees arrived in Minnesota from Laos and Thailand in the mid-1970s, their desire to seek out other Hmong was strong. As they settled into new homes, they sought to preserve their culture and traditions, including the annual observance of the New Year. In Hmong villages in Laos, the multi-day harvest gathering centered around feasting, courtship, and seeking blessings from ancestors.

In November 1977, a few Hmong refugees living in St. Paul came together to discuss how to celebrate the New Year together. They formed a group to collect money from different families to fund a New Year celebration. Although it was not a formal organization, it succeeded in raising the necessary funds. The group met again a year later and brought together twenty-five families. In 1979, the Hmong New Year was held at a Salvation Army. Many Hmong attended in hopes of meeting old and new faces.

As the event’s popularity grew, finding a location large enough to contain it became a formidable task. In 1980, members of the nonprofit Lao Family Community of Minnesota began to help with planning and organization. Over six thousand Hmong attended the fourth Hmong New Year, held at St. Paul’s Civic Center (later rebuilt as the Excel Energy Center). The use of this new venue expanded what had been a private gathering into a public event, and one that Non-Hmong people could attend. Slowly, the celebration was growing into a spectacle, transformed by brightly colored decorations and music.

Efforts to preserve Hmong culture — and to embrace it as a community — were major components of the 1981 New Year, held at Highland Junior-Senior High School in St. Paul. Eager to hold on to their culture, attendees wore traditional Hmong clothes. The event featured Hmong dancers, performers playing the qeej (a traditional Hmong wind instrument), food, and music. Those who didn’t perform were able to participate in the expression of culture through their outfits.

When the St. Paul Civic Center hosted the celebration again, in 1986, it took on the preservation of culture as its focus. Hmong Minnesotans showcased dances, singing, and other traditional activities. Skits were included in the event’s program that showcased the warmth of Hmong folktales.

In the early 2000s, Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul’s River Centre became the long-term home of the city’s Hmong New Year. Attendance continued to grow throughout the decade and in the early 2010s, peaking at about forty thousand in 2013.

In the twenty-first century, the St. Paul Hmong New Year has completed its transformation from a small community gathering to a weekend-long social extravaganza. This has created a mixture of old and new, a blend of traditional and modern, and recognition of diversity. Though many Hmong still practice animist rituals and pray to ancestors during the event, others sing Christian songs and hold fundraisers for local churches.

Pov pob, or “ball toss,” continues to be an essential part of every New Year. In this courtship ritual, a young man tosses a small cloth-sewn ball (pob) back and forth with a young woman. Many people participate in this traditional activity in hopes of finding a potential partner.

Music remains another strong component of the celebration, and one that intertwines with other activities. Even when playing ball toss, young men and women often participate in traditional folk singing, or kwv txhiaj.

Though there has been consistency, there have also been new revelations. In the 2010s, New Year celebrations feature Hmong break dancers, hip-hop artists, interracial and interethnic couples, singers, painters, and many styles of new and old Hmong clothing. They also provide a setting for the Miss Hmong Minnesota Pageant, in which young women compete for the state-wide title and crown.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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