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Published: Wednesday, Aug. 18th, 2021

The Black Umbrella - A Hmong Wedding Tradition

Illustrations by Jessica Levey

When you see a black umbrella tied with a black-and-white striped ribbon, you know you’ve found the wedding party! 

 


A black umbrella might seem like an unusual wedding accessory in some places, but you’ll always find one at a traditional Hmong wedding -- carried by the bride from start to end. And although the tradition is quite old, even modern Hmong couples sometimes choose to include a black umbrella in their ceremony out of appreciation for its rich symbolism and history.

 

Maybe you’ve seen them at weddings in the past, wrapped in bright black-and-white striped ribbon, and wondered where the tradition got its start! 

 

In its simplest form, the black wedding umbrella represents the bride herself (tus nkauj nyab). But it means much more, too...

 

It also symbolizes protection from natural elements and evil spirits as the bride travels to and from the ceremony. 

 

It’s elegant, curved sides capture the blessings of friends and families, filling it with love and goodwill. 


During traditional ceremonies, the umbrella is wrapped in a long black-and-white striped ribbon (made from folding a special cloth into a thin strip) called a Siv Ceeb. The Siv Ceeb ribbon has its own long history in women’s fashion, at times signalling a woman’s beauty and announcing to single suitors that she’s available to wed.

 

illustration of a black and white ribbon called a siv ceeb, in the shape of a heart

 

After the ceremony, the umbrella again symbolizes the bride and her commitment to the marriage. Once it’s closed, some say that only the groom is allowed to open it. 

 

Later, the couple often displays the umbrella in their home, hung on the wall by its rounded handle as a keepsake of the special day.

 

Hmong brides began carrying umbrellas to and from their weddings a long time ago, when traditional ceremonies were complicated events that took several days to complete. The multi-day rituals required the bride to travel back and forth between the groom’s home and her own, and she was given an umbrella to protect her from the elements and evil spirits as she traveled. At the time, umbrellas were expensive items that were difficult to make by hand. 

 

The traditional wedding ritual begins with a groom staging a symbolic kidnapping -- keeping the bride ‘hidden’ at his family house for several days while his relatives notify her parents of his intention to marry. In response, the bride’s family chooses an acceptable price for the bride, which the groom’s family agrees to pay in exchange for permission to wed. This payment is a combination of money, cigarettes, and property, and the custom continues today (though generally symbolic).   

 

Once the couple has permission to wed, the groom’s father asks the spirit ancestors for a blessing, welcoming the bride into their family. A large feast at the groom’s family home is next, followed by another feast and a long ‘negotiation’ at the bride’s home, helped along by the families’ mej koob (marriage negotiator).

 

The wedding ceremony itself takes place there, often lasting most of the following day and directed by the mej koob, and finally, the newlyweds travel back to the groom’s home for a large party.

 

Illustration of a black umbrella tied with a siv ceeb ribbon in a bow, to display in the home after the hmong wedding ceremony

 

 

 Modern traditions

 

Hmong American weddings are a mix of new and old customs. Because their traditional marriages don’t involve certificates or clergy to solemnize them, most Hmong Americans choose modern-leaning ceremonies with a wedding officiant and marriage license to ensure their unions are recognized. Some couples have two ceremonies -- one traditional, and one modern (to make it legal). And Christian Hmong couples sometimes choose simple Christian ceremonies, with an ordained minister and exchange of vows. 

 

But many modern couples still choose to include a black umbrella in their ceremony, as a meaningful way to honor their cultural heritage.

 

 

 

Did you know? 
The Hmong people live primarily in southern China and Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, and large communities of refugees and immigrants have formed around the world. The traditional Hmong religion is animist -- the belief in a spirit world and that all living things are interconnected. They have no designated clergy or places of worship, although the txiv neeb (or shaman) plays a key role in many of their religious rites and healings. 

 

There are well over 300,000 Hmong Americans living in the US, and legislation has been introduced in multiple states over the years attempting to add mej koob to the list of those who can solemnize marriage. The topic brings strong opinions from both sides, due to their unique role in the marriage process. 

 


 

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