The Navajo Celebration of a Baby’s First Laugh

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

navajo_woman_and_infant_canyon_de_chelle_arizona-_canyon_de_chelly_national_monument_1933_-_1942_-_nara_-_519947

While I was in Santa Fe earlier this week, I spent some time at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture researching Native American weaving, basketry, and ceramics patterns for the book. Pretty much every culture on Earth makes patterns—on walls, objects, or their own bodies—and one of the things I’ve been curious about is to what extent weavers and makers are aware of the structures that make patterns so universally appealing, and to what extent it’s purely intuitive. 

At the museum, I happened upon one of those deliciously joyful discoveries that I couldn’t wait to share. Did you know that the Navajo (Diné) people have a specific tradition around celebrating a baby’s first laugh? Around three months, they watch the baby closely for that first real giggle. The person who has the good fortune of eliciting that first laugh is then responsible for throwing a party, with the baby technically playing the role of host. Of course, a baby can’t host a party, so the relative or friend who coaxed out that first laugh hands out rock salt, candy, and gifts on the baby’s behalf. 

The belief behind the tradition is that when a baby is born, she belongs to two worlds: the spirit world and the physical one. The first laugh is seen as a sign of the baby’s desire to leave the spirit world and join her earthly family and community. Perhaps it was because of the fragility of new life that infants were treated as still “between worlds” for those delicate first few months, until parents heard a sign of joy and wellbeing that reassured them their baby was healthy enough to survive. On reflection, I realized that other cultures also celebrate a milestone around the same time in a baby’s life. For example, the Korean dol tradition celebrates a baby’s first hundred days, which is just over the three month mark where the Diné anticipate the first laugh. 

Without taking away any of the sacredness of the A’wee Chi’deedloh, I love the idea of celebrating the arrival baby’s giggle — her first expression of joy — as the first big milestone in a child’s life. Joy is a big part of what makes us human, so it makes sense that we are only fully human once we have the capacity for laughter. Which sounds like it’s worth a party, or a glass of champagne at least! 

Do you have any unique milestones you celebrate in your culture or family? If so, I’d love to hear them!

Image: Untitled. Ansel Adams. 1941. Taken near Canyon de Chelly
October 5th, 2016

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    Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. pamela weimann on March 15, 2018

    Thank you, I have lived in New Mexico for 50 years and I did not know this.Lovely.I have spent some time in Mexico with the Huichol People.When a Baby is born they touch it’s feet to the Earth,as the Shaman speaks blessings in their ancient language.

    Reply
  2. SuSan Allen on March 20, 2018

    What a beautiful perspective! This is something to share with my whole family. Thank you for bringing it to light!

    Reply
  3. priscilla on March 21, 2018

    Love this! And the feet touching the ground blessing one commenter wrote. Hope to do some with our 2nd, our rainbow baby

    Reply
  4. Lucy Howard on October 25, 2019

    My parents allowed the cats to sleep with me in my cradle. The cats purred and helped lull me to sleep because I had colic. This close bond with the cats helped me to see that other animals have a spirit within that is just as sacred as my own.

    Reply
  5. Tylee on February 12, 2020

    I am hopi, but my husband and son are Navajo. Today my son had his first laugh at just over 6 weeks old, and now my husband has to throw him a laughing party. The tradition also includes a laughing party cake and for the person to make him laugh to cook a huge meal for the whole family. I came across this looking for cake decoration ideas for his laughing party. I appreciate that you stayed true to tradition with this. It really warms my heart when non-natives respect Indigenous culture.

    Reply

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