Hmong Community Celebrates New Year
By Scott Shurtleff
FITCHBURG -- When Pa Toua Thao cut the ribbon at Saturday’s Hmong New Year Festival, it represented a modern celebration of an ancient ritual. Thao is the Senior Advisor for all Hmong tribes in Massachusetts.
The Saturday morning ceremony, part of an annual two-day event at the Finnish Center of Saima Park, saw about 300 people gathered for the New Year with old friends. Actual New Year for them is late December but “that is too cold of a time to have the celebration,” said Vice President of Hmong Massachusetts, Michael Khang. “So we have it annually on Labor Day weekend to allow for outdoor activities. The ribbon cutting symbolizes the end of one year and the welcoming of a new one.”
Half of the visitors wore traditional Hmong clothing and headwear, brightly colored outfits adorned with beads and golden chains, while many men wore fine suits in respect to the day’s significance. The visual spectacle was accented with the aroma of traditional sticky rice-based cuisine, and by the sound of txhiaj txhais, rhythmic verse that recites stories via riddles, the native song style of the Hmong.
There are an estimated 2,000 Hmong in Massachusetts, including more than 400 in the Fitchburg area. They are indigenous to China and other southeast Asian nations with ancestral roots dating back at least 5,000 years.
The Saima Park ceremony dates back to 1992 and has grown in size every year over that quarter century, with an estimated 400-600 expected over the two days this year. Chang Yang is on the organization’s Board of Directors.
“In the past, we were having to charge people because the event costs money to stage,” he said, explaining that that may have been prohibitive for some people. “We want to make it a free event so more people from the Hmong community can come. Some families have a lot of members and if they have to pay for everyone, they might not come. It’s New Years so it should be free to everyone.”
The Board of Directors held a fundraiser earlier this year with plans to use the money on the New Year celebration, which Yang says is the biggest such event in New England. Many guests and vendors were from all corners of Massachusetts as well as Connecticut and several from as far away as Minnesota, which has the country’s largest population of Hmong.
“This event brings in people from all over the country, and we welcome you to Fitchburg,” said Mayor Stephen DiNatale, who was one of several politicians in attendance.
Several civic groups and area religious representatives also had small kiosks, sharing the aisle with vendors, as guests walked about; tasting this, trying on that, talking with her and posing with him.
“It is not a religious celebration,” Khang noted. “It is strictly cultural.”
People from many cultures took part in the festivities.
The smells and sounds even lured some neighborhood residents out of their homes. Sam Codyer and Amy McGrath walked the short distance up Scott Road to where all the cars were parked.
“I had heard about it a while ago,” said Codyer. “But I decided to come check it out this year.”