Vietnamese Lunar New Year
Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet)
As many TTers asked if they should visit Vietnam over Tet or not, what is the meaning of Tet, here is some information about our traditional customs:
The meaning of “Tet”
Similar to Christmas and (Solar) New Year celebrations, Tet is an occasion for family reunion and merriment after a long year of hard work. For an agrarian community like Vietnam, it is also a short rest period before the hustle and bustle of the coming-on spring harvest. People’s rejoicings also symbolize a warm welcome to the awakening of the mother-soil from her hibernation.
A crystallization of a curious mixture of the people’s superstitious beliefs and practical wisdom, Tet’s customs reflect the mentality of our people. The family’s altar must be painstakingly set up with an abundance of offerings perpetually aglow with candle light and wrapped in incense. Our ancestors’ manes are invited home to share with the living of the fruit of the family’s labors.
As tokens of well-wishing intentions, some newly-issued bank notes in red envelops are given to children and teenagers on this occasion. Quite a few thrifty children will hoard them in brightly-painted piggy-banks to induce luck throughout the year.
Peach and plum boughs
Peach flowers (in North Vietnam) and plum flowers (in South Vietnam) brighten most living rooms during these days as the embodiment of youth and vitality and hope at the very beginning of a new and thus, hopefully propitious year ahead.
The Kitchen Gods
Residing under the same roof with mortals are 2 gods and 1 goddess who make up a family of their own as 2 husbands and a wife. This odd family pattern might have been conceived as a humorous criticism leveled at polygamy – a common practice in an agrarian society. The Kitchen Gods – as these family gods are called – are believed to be the household guardians protecting the family and keeping a record of its deeds, good and bad alike, to report annually to the Jade Emperor (the Asian counterpart of Greece’s Jupiter). They set off on their heaven-bound mission as early as the 23rd of the 12th lunar month so as to return to their hearth on the New Year’s Eve in time for resumption of their guardianship. On this occasion, householders never fail to burn a paper carp as a “means" of transportation for the gods.
Strings of fire-crackers
Exactly at the stroke of midnight of the New Year’s Eve, fire-crackers everywhere concurrently boom out the old year, warding off evil spirits and bad luck, and clearing the way for a warm welcome to the prosperous and fortunate new year.
(Now fire-crackers were banned, we enjoy the fireworks on the New Year’s Eve)
Red parallel scrolls
On red paper and in gilded characters (Sino or Sino-Vietnamese calligraphy) parallel scrolls are either hung on both sides of the ancestors’ altar, or pasted on the wall to express the owners’ wishes or aspirations for the new year.
Tet’s special foods
Special occasions call for special foods to celebrate. For Tet, a highly seasoned glutinous rice cake (“Banh Chung” in the North, and “Banh Tet” in the South) is a must for the new year feasts. Square in shape to represent our earth, this cake is to be accompanied by another kind of plain rice cake (called “Banh Day”) in round shape to suggest the universe. Even trivial things like foods and drinks are imbued with our ancestors’ cosmic concept.
Water melon, which is said to date back to the Hung dynasty (the Hungs being the country’s founding fathers from its misty prehistory), is another must for desserts of the occasion. With its red (the color of good luck), sweet (the taste of success), and juicy (the sign of abundance) pulp, it heightens the merriment of the time.
Watch your language! – Bad, angry words are strictly prohibited for fear that they might bring bad luck throughout the new year. Oddly enough, even the names of some animals are taboos, such as monkey, dog…
Dust not, sweep not! Sweeping the floor, dusting furniture during the period from midnight of the New Year’s Eve to midnight of the New Year’s Day may bring poverty to the family, as money may take leave on the heels of the discarded rubbish.
Behave yourself! For at least 4 days of the New Year celebration, try to put on a smiling face, which happy appearance is most likely to bring good tidings to yourself and those who meet you as well.
Being the first visitor
It is widely believed that the first person to cross the threshold of your house at Tet can somehow determine how you will fare in the new year. Some people are welcome warmly as carriers of good luck while others are invariably stigmatized as unlucky creatures. This has resulted in some people going to great lengths to pre-arrange for the “right person” to be their first visitor of the year – by all standards a risky job indeed.
All in all, Tet is a time for the hard-working Vietnamese to forget – even temporarily – the harsh realities of life, and to give and receive joy and happiness. It is an invigorating break from the grey monotony of routine.
And it will certainly be observed as long as people are still sentient.
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