La Crosse Area Hmong Community New Year Celebration: A History and Festival for All

The La Crosse Hmong New Year is deeply rooted in Hmong heritage. Hmong New Year’s are traditionally celebrated at the end of the harvest season in Laos, which usually falls between late November and early December. After a year of hard work, Hmong families put away their farm tools and pulled out their best attire to celebrate the harvest and the end of the traditional year. Every clan holds their own traditional in-house ceremonies, but the festivities are celebrated as a village. Everyone, young and old, puts on their hand-crafted paj ntaub (embroidery) dresses and outfits to show case their family’s wealth and the young gathers to sing complexly lyrical songs called kwv txhiaj while playing a courtship game called pov pob (ball toss) with the hope of finding their future soul mate. This social event lasts anywhere between 5 (small village) to 15 (larger village) days as each village starts and ends the new year on different date to allow opportunity for all villages to come, support, and visit each other ball tossing festivity.  Sometimes, multiple villages join hands hosting just one new year celebration or takes turn hosting the New Year.

Although the New Year tradition has continued in the United States, some things have changed. The story of traditional farmers spending a month celebrating the harvest after a year-long’s hard work is no longer relevant for the Hmong community. The diversity in career options in the Hmong population seems limitless. In the Midwest, the weather in November and December poses as another problem for outdoor celebration. The weekend also prevents Hmong communities from celebrating for more than two days.

The Opening Ceremony is a tradition for many New Years

In order to cover the cost for putting the new year together, Hmong community had to adapt business models to solicit donations and collect fees to support the event. Food and merchandise vendors became a staple of Hmong New Year, along with traditional folk songs, cultural performances, singing, and music.  Another big event for young people is sports tournaments. Soccer, flag football, and volleyball some of the most popular sports tournaments held within the Hmong communities. A decade ago, other sports tournaments took a turn towards the traditional sports by introducing kato and top-spinning. Kato is often described as volleyball using one’s feet with less players. Instead of a leather bound ball, kato is played with a hollow ball made from bamboo woven together. Top-spinning is really just spinning top. The tops look like a smooth rounded dreidel played with a stick attached to a piece of string about 5-6 feet.   Hmong Flag Football emerged as a new staple sport of Hmong festivals in the 2000s branching from the idea of the National Football League in this country and its popularity.

The night party offer festival goers a way to continue the celebration all weekend long.

Despite these changes, the cultural heritage continues to permeate the affair. Individual clans continue to hold their traditional in-house ceremonies. Emerging Hmong fashion designers have modified and turned Hmong clothes into a fashion statement which are more popular than ever at Hmong New Years. The popularity of hand-crafted and free trade ethnic merchandise attracts a unique crowd to every tournament, festival and Hmong New Year. The abundance of food options is another tell-tale sign of change. It wasn’t long ago that food booths specialized in only three or four food options. Today, food vendors offer every possible appetizer they can fit in their food heaters and a main course in order to stay competitive. Bubble tea is the drink of choice and tropical fruit vendors barely get a moment of rest.  The most talk about choice is the super spicy hot Hmong or Thai papaya salad and purple sticky rice.

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This year, Hmong communities across the U.S. are celebrating 42 years in America. Much has changed. A quick glance at the trends of Hmong New Year celebrations proves it. For more than 30 years, the La Crosse Area Hmong New Year was hosted at the Veterans Memorial Park in West Salem. In the last five years, the La Crosse community has witnessed a change in location of the New Year, leadership of the Agency and title from HMAA to HCCA.  This year, 2017, the New Year was back at Veterans Memorial Park again.  These are all big changes for the community, but it’s not necessarily bad changes. Just as the purpose of the Agency has evolved over time, so has our community. The La Crosse Hmong New Year Festival serves as the perfect example of how the Hmong people and the community is opened and that we are adapting to become part of society and extending their culture to all Americans.

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The Hmong New Year Festival in La Crosse will be held annually on the 3rd week of September at Veterans Memorial Park in West Salem, WI.

Photos courtesy of HCCA. Copyright. All rights reserved. No part of these photos is to be reproduced without prior written permission.