By Sarah CR Clark
Mao Lee has been a teacher at St. Anthony Park Elementary School for 23 years and currently teaches second grade.
Lee has lived in St. Paul for more than 40 years and proudly considers herself Minnesotan. She was born in Laos and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War her family, among many other Hmong families, migrated through the jungle to safety in Thailand before coming to the United States.
Lee is bilingual, speaking both English and Hmong.
She met with me to talk about Hmong New Year, which was celebrated on Nov. 25 and 26.
Q: When is Hmong New Year?
Lee: Hmong New Year usually happens the weekend after Thanksgiving and goes on for about two days. Here in St. Paul, there is a big celebration at the River Center. It’s usually on the weekend so people have the days off to attend and celebrate.
Traditionally our New Year’s happened after the fall harvest so we could share an abundance of food with the ancestors.
Q: What are some traditional ways to celebrate Hmong New Year?
Lee: Traditionally the noj peb caug (which means New Year) celebration is done in the house. Most families or clans have a shaman who will come, but in my personal family my dad will lead the ceremony.
They will first kill a chicken as an offering. Then there is a bowl with rice and eggs in it and they bring that, with some burning incense, to the door of the house. They open the door and then my father will say some words to thank the ancestors for the luck, wealth and health that has happened in the past year and then he will welcome each family member.
Each egg in the bowl is for each family member and he’ll name all of us, welcoming us into the house with blessings for the new year. He’ll make good offerings to the healer spirit and the wealth spirit. Once that is done, each person in the family eats their own egg.
The eggs, which are usually boiled, are like the souls of the people in the family. After the meal is finished, my dad will take a branch with some leaves — like an olive branch — and he’ll go to each family member’s house and he’ll sweep their door. He’ll sweep all the good luck in and sweep all the bad luck and evil spirits out.
While he does that, my mother ties spirit bracelets on family members in each household who still follow Hmong Shaman traditions. The bracelets are made of black, white, and red cotton threads and they are to ward off evil spirits.
Q: What is your favorite way to celebrate Hmong New Year?
Lee: My favorite way is to sit around the table, all together, to eat all the food that was prepared. Like the eggs and the chicken and whatever other food is cooked for the table. I like to visit with family members and watch the kids run around. Just having the family together.
Q: Do you go to the Hmong New Year River Center events?
Lee: I’ve gone in the past and haven’t been in the last few years. I go to people watch. I love just looking at the different and new styles of traditional clothing that are sewn. That’s what I love the best. The beautiful sequins, the jingling coins, intricate designs, beading and sequins put together. A lot of those outfits are hand sewn and take months to finish.
Sarah CR Clark lives in St. Anthony Park and is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.
Photo cutline: Mao Lee, wearing traditional Hmong clothing, joyfully celebrates Hmong New Year each November with her family. Photo courtesy of Mao Lee