Traditional Hmong marriage involves elaborate preparation, a symbolic ceremony, and huge banquets. Depending upon the affluence of the families involved, the wedding can last anywhere from one to three days. Gift exchange between the two families, as well as elegant food preparation, always precedes the ceremony. A Hmong wedding ritual involves tying a length of white ribbon or string from around the wrist of the bride to around the wrist of the groom. This tying is performed by a respected elder or pair of elders who accompany themselves with chants. A young hen, rooster, and a hard-boiled egg are also a part of the ceremony as symbols for the coming together of all parts. Candles and burning incense alert the spirit world to the fact that a marriage is taking place. After the hard-boiled egg has been halved, each marriage partner eats one of the halves. Extensive toasting then takes place with the groom acknowledging each toast while trying to remain sober. When the feasting finally takes place, the bride and groom sit separately. There is no rush to finish eating; the meal can go for hours. After marriage, a bride must prove that she is able to carry out her household responsibilities, and prove her modesty and loyalty. According to tradition she is not supposed to make eye contact, have a conversation with or smile at other men during the first year of marriage.
Traditional Hmong weddings are much more than a celebration of the uniting of two individuals. Ceremonies serve as important ritualistic transitions for individuals, families, and clans. Hence, the Hmong marriage ceremony provides a crucial social function beyond the nuptial relationship itself. It provides the time and space for negotiating new and potentially long-lasting relationships in a culture that values family and communal association. The ceremony is at once sacred and profane, long (up to three days) and very different from popularized versions of American weddings.
More controversially, there are lingering alternative paths to marriage available in the Hmong culture that, while infrequent, garner attention because they involve the elopement of young women, often below the legal minimum age of marriage. An even more controversial alternative to traditional marriage is referred to as “bride abduction” or “kidnapping.” Also, the practice of polygamy exists in Hmong tradition, but it is not encouraged publicly or embraced by newer generations of Hmong Americans.
Formal Announcement of Marriage
When the bride and groom decide to be married, the groom brings the bride to his home to announce the intent. The groom’s parents must then secure two people known Mej Koob (part Marriage Facilitators, part Negotiators) to undertake a ritual journey to the bride’s home to greet the bride’s parents and announce the marriage. After the two messengers have notified the parents about the bride’s status and whereabouts, barring any dramatic disagreement, a wedding date is scheduled.
The Bride Price Meeting
The next task is to attend the Bride Price meeting. For this meeting, the groom selects a support team including the two Mej Koob, a best man (pheij laj), parents and others. Before embarking, the groom’s family undertakes the ritual known as “packing of chickens.” These delicacies are given to the bride’s family as a spiritual offering. Upon arriving to the house, the best man and the groom must bow on their hands and knees to the father and mother of the bride and then to each member of the bride’s family. The groom’s Mej Koob also bow to the Mej Koob representing the bride’s family. After these formalities, chairs and a table are set up to provide a space to conduct the “bride price” negotiation. These events typically occur on a Friday night in preparation for Saturday’s wedding ceremony.
The Wedding Day
Families from the community are invited to the wedding day feast and celebration. In fact, the event resembles a large family gathering. Though guests often number in the dozens or more, only thirteen people make up the official wedding party itself: the bride and groom; the best man and bridesmaid; the bride’s and groom’s marriage negotiators (Mej Koob); the groom’s and bride’s designated parent; the groom’s and bride’s designated brother; and one elder who officiates the ceremony. Interactions among these principals during the ceremony can be informal, intimate and even poetic. A special bond sometimes develops among principals due to intimate communications that occur through ritualistic songs sung by members of the wedding party to each other. For example, one song asks the bride’s parents to open the door when wedding procession arrives; another song is performed while setting up the marriage negotiators’ table; and so forth.
Food and the Role of Women
A cow and pig are usually butchered for the wedding day and a long table set up where the food will be placed. Female members of the family are expected to cook the meat and other traditional Hmong meals that will be eaten by the wedding party and the guests. They must arrive very early (typically Saturday morning) to the bride’s house to begin the food preparation. While the food is being prepared and served, key players (mostly men) meet at a long table. At each end of the table facing each other sit the two sets of Mej Koob. Between the negotiators are the groom, the best man, the selected members to represent the brother of the bride, and other family members. During and after food preparation, the women socialize and may enter the room where the table is located to observe, but they do not have a seat at the table.
Alcohol is a significant component of Hmong wedding ceremonies. Liquor is served in shot glasses while beer is offered in cans or bottles. Drinking is done in a very specific manner and at the request of specific people seated at the table. For example, at any moment during the event, the brothers of the bride are allowed to demand that the groom drink up to a 12 ounce portion of beer. The groom must finish it before being allowed drink something else. For those at or near the table, when a drink is offered it is very difficult to reject. If someone rejects a drink, the person who offers it can double the request. A surrogate must then be found to take the drink. But it is a tit for tat affair, so that anyone who accepts a drink can also ask the giver to take a drink of equal proportion.
Periodically, relatives and friends will arrive with gifts. All monetary gifts are recorded on a piece of paper and given to the Mej Koob that represents the bride’s family. After receiving this paper, they will read off what the couple will be receiving as gifts. In the end the couple is expected to thank the people who were involved in the wedding after which they receive their gifts. The wedding party participants are also paid. (For example, the Mej Koob might receive $100, the best man and maid of honor $60, and others down the line.
After the feast and all the drinks have been properly served and imbibed, the two Mej Koob of the groom, the groom, bride, and maid of honor are free to return to the groom’s home. Upon arrival, they will eat another feast to celebrate the marriage.
After the bride leaves her parents’ home, there are additional rituals to complete before the wedding is finished. Specifically, when the bride and groom arrive at the groom’s house after the wedding. The groom calls his father or an elder male to the door and asks him to perform a welcoming ritual to transfer the bride’s allegiance from the spirits of her parents’ ancestors to the spirits of the groom’s ancestors. The groom’s family then holds a feast which involves a ritual of thanksgiving to express gratitude to all the wedding negotiators or assistants. Finally, on the third day after the bride’s arrival at her new home, a soul calling is conducted to welcome the new arrival after which the young woman becomes a wife. As a symbol of her new status, she will remove forever the black and white striped cloth – called a siv ceeb – from her turban. This striped cloth has been symbolically tied to an umbrella that has accompanied the wedding ritual from day one. This is a symbol of the union of man and wife, for, when the wedding ritual is over, the civ ceeb is untied from the umbrella, and the new bride opens it over her husband to signify that the two young lovers now shelter eternally under one roof. Forever afterward, as Western women wear a wedding ring, the traditional Hmong woman will signal her married status by wearing her turban without the black and white stripe.