BREWSTER -- Members of southwest Minnesota's Lao community gathered in Brewster Saturday evening to celebrate not only the Lao New Year, but their culture, heritage and traditions. The party preceded a more formal celebration on Sunday at the Lao Temple north of Worthington.
Saturday's event drew nearly 200 people for a traditional New Year's ceremony, feast and dance. It provided an opportunity for the elders in the Lao community to showcase the traditions of their culture in hopes that the next generation will continue to honor the Lao customs.
Saksady Xaisongkham, Lao Temple president and resident of Magnolia, said the Lao New Year is celebrated in mid-April each year. In Laos, the celebration lasts for three days, and includes lots of revelry.
Saksady's family moved from Laos to the United States in 1980, and has carried on the tradition locally each year. His son C.J. was one of those in attendance Saturday.
The evening ceremony included a Basi celebration, in which a Pha Khuan (a plant topped with a candle, decorated with string and surrounded by tiers of fruits and boiled eggs) serves as a gathering place for the Laotians.
A group of nearly 30 participants walked around the Pha Khuan three times, playing music and talking to the angels in prayer, explained Bounlorm Soumetho, another leader in the local Lao community.
After the third round, the men and women sat around the Pha Khuan and prayed before removing the strings from the plant and tying them around the wrists of those seated around them.
"The Monks blessed the string," said C.J. "The Monks don't come to the party. They do another ceremony on Sunday -- that's the real ceremony of the new year."
Saksady said the strings are presented as a wish for good luck and a good future, a wish for the old year and a wish for the new. They must be worn for a minimum of three days.
"That's what we believe," he said. "We have to make a wish and accept it."
The fruits were passed out as blessings, while the boiled eggs carry a special meaning. Saksady said the shell is peeled away and the egg is opened to reveal the yolk. If it comes out on the bottom of the egg, it symbolizes a year without much support, but if it is situated to the side, it means good support.
While Saksady took part in the traditional ceremony, his son did not. At age 20, C.J. said he's coming to the point in his life where he will need to make a profession of faith of sorts for his culture.
In the Lao community, the elders are seeing the language and the traditions being lost among the next generation, and they hope celebrations like the Lao New Year will help to carry on their native beliefs.
"It's up to us to carry on the culture," C.J. said. "They want us to know what the culture is and where they come from.
"Laos is a culture with a lot of respect," he added. "They want us to know what's done and carry it on."
Soumetho said his greatest hope is that their children will understand their culture and carry on the traditions.
"Here, they are all so busy with their job," he said, explaining that families don't have time to teach their children the native language as well as they should. Soumetho would like to see Laotian taught in the local schools as an option for students.
In the Lao calendar, 2011 marks the year of the rabbit, which means it will be a remarkable year, said Soumetho. There are 12 animals in the Lao calendar, and the rabbit is considered a common animal, but not a powerful one. 2010 was the year of the tiger.
Bill Souksavong, who owns Top Asian Foods in Worthington where some of the food was prepared for the evening feast, said the celebration wouldn't have been possible without the support from the community. The UFCW Local 1161 provided $2,000 for the event, while JBS donated more than 60 pounds of pork for the dishes.
Soumetho and Souksavong also spoke highly of Worthington and the support that has been given to the Lao Temple. They said the facility now has access to city water, and they really appreciate the cooperation of the neighborhood.
"The temple is for all nationalities to worship, bless, get well, get happiness and learn more about moral character," said Soumetho.