Hmong WoW: Noj Tsiab Peb Caug

The Hmong “Word of the Week” is “Noj Tsiab Peb Caug.”

Obviously, this is not just one word, but it is one idea. It means “to celebrate New Year’s,” but literally translated, it would be “to eat the New Year’s feast.” “Noj” is “to eat,” “Tsiab” is the feast, and “peb caug,” which means “thirty,” refers to the 30th day of the lunar month after completing the rice harvest. That day is considered to be the last day of the old year and the beginning of the new.

Hmong Girls at New Year's, by John Pavelka
Hmong Girls at New Year’s, by John Pavelka

Generally, it falls sometime in the first part of December, but the Hmong aren’t hard and fast about when, which allows for more celebrations. Each year in America, starting in November and going into December, the Hmong celebrate New Year’s. For example, the Sacramento Hmong will celebrate New Year’s at the same time that America celebrates Thanksgiving, which is a nice overlap. The Hmong in Fresno host perhaps the biggest New Year’s celebration in America each year in December. Hmong from all over the country come to join in the celebration.

Robert Cooper, in The Hmong: A Guide to Traditional Life, says this about the traditional New Year’s timing:

The 30th day of the lunar month after the completion of the harvest is normally taken as the start of the year. Literally, the term refers to the last day of the old year. Preparations for the celebrations begin before this day and most significant rituals—e.g., replacement of alters—take place on this day, leaving the first days of the New Year free for fun and games.

The Cowboy Hmong
The Cowboy Hmong

Traditionally, the Hmong New Year’s celebrations are a time for the young men and young women to court each other. (Although the older folks get in on the action as well.) They will line up in rows with boys across from girls, and each pair will toss a cloth ball (“khaub hlab”) back and forth. They will talk, or sing to each other. Sometimes, they will make a game of the ball toss where if you drop the ball, you must give something up. It could be something of value, or it could be that the person who dropped the ball must sing.

Showing the Youth How It's Done
Showing the Youth How It’s Done

Besides tossing the ball, the Hmong also play games. They have soccer, volleyball, and kab toj matches. The young women compete in beauty pageants, where they dance and sing. The New Year’s celebration locations also give opportunities to vendors to sell merchandise such as Hmong clothing, movies, music, and books. But of all the things the vendors sell, the food is the best. So much good food in one place. It’s delicious!

Kab Toj Games
Kab Toj Games

If you’re in the Fresno, California, area between December 26 and January 1, 2018, go visit the Hmong New Year’s celebration. Otherwise, Happy Hmong New Year’s! Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!

Have you ever been to Hmong New Year’s? What Hmong New Year’s traditions do you have?

Featured Photo: New Year’s Games, by John Pavelka

Author: Michael Andrew Ellis

I write literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition. Here on my blog I write about Mormon arts and letters, Hmong history and culture, classic and contemporary literature, existentialism, and my journey as a writer.

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