A Typical Year in the Life of a Hmong Family

The Blacksmith (January)

This is the month the Blacksmith works to make all the farming tools ready for the spring planting. Metal tools that need to be prepared include axes, many kinds of hoes, plows, machetes, and other kinds of knives. Wooden equipment to be made includes the frame for back-packs used to carry wood for the cooking fires and the bamboo baskets used to carry rice and other farm products.

This season is mostly sunny with a clear sky, and only occasional soft rain showers. The first thunder of the year is a signal to tell the people to go back to farming.


Highland Slashing Vegetation ( February)

In the highlands it is now time to prepare the ground for the year's crops. The trees and brush must be cut down on new fields. After the jungle is cleared the sunshine can reach the ground and dry all the wood, brush, and cut grass.


Lowland Field Preparation (February and March)

In the lowlands the water canals must be cleaned of mud, stones and garbage which settled in them from the previous year. Grass around the field is cut. There is much work to be done. All work is done by hand while there are no machines.

The weather is starting to get warmer. Everyone is very busy and happy to be able to plant the new crops.


Highland Burn and Plant (March)

At this time most of the highland fields are burned into ashes. The whole family then gathers the unburned wood and brush into piles. The piles are burned again to make more room for the planting. The ashes also are a fertilizer for the new crops. If the field is near the homes, a fence is built with wood and bamboo around the field, to keep out animals. Everyone helps plant the many crops; rice, flax, banana, sugar cane, corn, cucumbers, squash, sweet potato, and other vegetables.

The sun is getting warmer. There is much smoke in the sky from the burning and smoldering brush fires. The smoke filters the heat of the sun. The air is never clear.


Plowing (April)

The crops are growing in the highlands. The fields are green and beautiful. In the lowlands, the rice is almost ready for transplanting. First, the people must get the land ready for transplanting. The field is plowed and dragged to soften the earth. Oxen and water buffalo are used to pull the plow and drag.

Rain showers and thunder storms come at least once a week, just enough to make the plants grow.


Planting and Weeding (May)

Highland people work hard on their farms to weed the crops. The whole family spends all day in the fields.

Lowland families transplant the rice. The healthy rice plants are pulled and separated to be replanted again in a single row. The field is always covered with water. Warm mud squishing through the toes make working fun.

The work days are long. The sun is hot. The long hours make weary families.


First Crops (June)

The corn is full and juicy. Cucumbers are fat and tasty. The hot peppers bite the tongue. Eggplant, beans and other vegetables are producing wonderful delicious fruits. The air is rich with good smelling aromas.

The people who practice traditional religion (Animism) take the first crops of the new harvest and offer them to their ancestors. This event is call Noj Taub Yaj (pronounced Naw Taw Ya). In this ceremony the father of the family thanks the ancestors for the good crops.


Clearing the Home of Evil Spirits (July)

Many Hmong believe that homes can have bad spirits. Bad spirits are chased from the home by the power of the Shaman. A Shaman is a religious leader who can control good and bad spirits. Water and fire are good powerful elements in the fight against evil spirits.

Every Shaman must have an alter that is covered with gold and silver paper. On the alter there are incense, powder, buffalo horns, finger bells, scissors, sword, and a bowl of special clear water.

Before beginning a ceremony, a Shaman first beats the gong to call the spiritual powers. Another person is then assigned to continue beating the gong. The Shaman sits on a bench in front of the alter, covers his face with a veil, puts on the finger bells, bends toward the burning incense then back again to begin the trance. The gong is beaten hard to energize the Shaman who, as he reaches another spiritual world, speaks words unfamiliar to the people around. Bad spirits are persuaded to come close and are then killed. When fighting with bad spirits, the Shaman emits loud noises and suddenly jumps up to stand on the bench. Someone must be there to guide the Shaman so he does not fall when jumping on the bench.

Sitting still after the trance, the Shaman removes the veil, takes the buffalo horns and throws them to the ground to reveal a message from Shee Yee (God). He interprets this to the sick person and their family to give instructions on what to do for healing.

People can not decide to be a Shaman and most do not want to be. The Shee Yee (God) chooses a good person (man or woman) by making him or her sick, sometimes for many years before he or she can perform Shamanism. In the beginning he is guided by an experienced Shaman.


The Rainy Season (July)

The rainy season is seven days and seven nights of rain with no sunshine. All of the ground is covered with water and people cannot get out to the fields. Animals are kept in a shelter called nkuaj (pronounced goo-a).

Inside the home woman are busy making cloth from flax, a plant with strong fibers. The stem of the flax is peeled into strands. These stands are flattened with finger nails into threads. The thread is boiled to make it soft and white. The fine threads are spun into yarn.

Men make baskets and large containers from bamboo, a strong tall tree-like grass with a hard stem. The baskets will hold rice and other crops.

Children are always helping their mothers and fathers. In the evening parents tell stories to the children so they can learn the Hmong customs.


Maturing Crops (August)

During the warm, heavy rains the crops grow into a beautiful harvest. The mountain side lets the rain run off to keep the plants healthy. The harvest is a reward for all the hard work of planting and weeding.

People enjoy pumpkin, squash, watermelon, sweet-sticky corn, carrots, sweet potato, cucumber, melon, eggplant, rice, qos nplooj (pronounced gau blong) fresh vegetables, fruits and other grains.

Some vegetables are dried to eat later in the year. Others are saved in baskets which are stored in shelters.

The animals get fat on yellow squash, corn, and all other vegetables left over after the people eat. They also eat fruits of the forest such as young banana trees.


Making Cloth (September)

Cloth is made for new clothes for the next year. The flax thread is woven into fabric. On the rolling stone the fabric is made flat and smooth. Some of the white fabric is dyed black with a special kind of weed called nkaj (pronounced gaa). Other pieces of fabric are batik colored, a process of making designs with bees' wax before dying. The fabric will then be sewn by hand into clothing for men, women and children. Each person in the family must have a new set of clothes for the new year. The clothing is highly decorated with needlework called paj ntaub (pronounced pan down). Women and girls from the age of five spend many hours making the clothing beautiful.

During this time, men make lovely silver jewelry for the family to wear on special occasions.

Those families who practice the traditional religion will call a Shaman on the 9th day of the month. This Shaman calls the spirit of Ka Ying (God) to bring joy and love to the family.


The Rice Harvest (October)

In October relatives, friends, men, women, boys and girls all gather to work happily in the fields. They enjoy trading labor to help each other with the rice harvest. The grain is pounded out and stored the remaining straw is stacked. There is much laughter and merriment as they harvest the rice.

When all the rice is harvested, the vegetable fields must be weeded to get them ready for planting small patches of garlic, onions, green beans, and other vegetables.

The weather is getting cooler and the heavy rains have stopped. Small showers come about once a week to keep everything green.


Storing the Harvest (November)

All the rice from the fields must be carried to the village homes to be stored for the unproductive season. Corn, squash, and winter vegetables are stacked in a storage shed. Small horses and cows are helpful to carry the heavy loads. If the family is poor and does not own a horse the people must carry all the crops on their backs to the homes.

At this time a small white wild flower is blooming everywhere. The paj dawb (pronounced par der) flower signals it is time to start preparing for the New Year Celebration.

If the family chooses, they kill a large pig or a cow to have a pre-New Year party called noj tsiab (pronounced naw cheea). Relatives and friends are invited to parties from village to village where meat is enjoyed. During this New Year season, meat is a special treat.


The New Year (December)

All year the family works hard in the fields. There is no time for play. There is not time for school. There is no time for visiting. It is work, work, work.

The only big celebration each year is the NEW YEAR! Villages comes together to eat, drink and be happy. There is much time spent talking with one another regarding past events and making many plans for the future. Everyone looks forward to this wonderful time of socializing.

December 31 is the last day of the old year. That night each family celebrates the new year in their home. Families move from home to home to visit one another, eating wonderful foods prepared by each household. Homes are brightly lighted with candles or gas lamps. Some farming tools are decorated inside the home. There is no sleep for anyone until the stroke of midnight.

At midnight everyone is very quiet and listens for the first sound of the new year. This sound tells the people what the next year will be like. Usually it is some kind of animal or bird sound. The clan elders interpret the sound to let the group know if the year will be good or bad.

Also at midnight one of the elders uses a scale to weigh water. The weights of the old water taken into the home before midnight and the new water brought in after midnight are compared. If the new water is lighter, the new year crops will be less productive. If the new year water is heavier, the crops will be better than the previous year.