Phan Thanh Hai

Raising the nêu tree (Thướng tiêu) was a key ritual held in the Former Royal Citadel of Hue during the Nguyen Dynasty. This ceremony signalled the end of the year and the start of preparations to welcome Spring and Tet. When the first nêu tree was erected in the royal palace, commoners knew that Spring was on its way.

A nêu tree is raised outside Hien Lam Pavillion (Ancestral Temple)

Spring has come from out there
Knocking on every door, excluding none

Following the erection of the royal nêu tree, commoners followed the royals’ example and erected nêu trees in their courtyards, cleaned their homes, chose flowers as decorations, presented red parallel sentences and wrapped chưng cakes and rice tubes to welcome the spring.

Following sacrifices, the nêu tree is raised

The tradition of raising nêu trees is rooted in a classic Buddhist tale about a longago battle between humans and demons. The Buddha helped people to overcome the forces of evil and drive these demons out to sea. However, during the Tet holidays, evil forces are allowed to return to land for two weeks. During this period deities return to Heaven to report worldly concerns to the Emperor of Heaven. To stop evil spirits from harming people over Tet, the Buddha advised people to erect nêu trees in front of their homes, draw white limestone lines on the ground, and place lush green sugar cane stalks around their homes. These are all embodiments of the Buddha, and evil spirits dare not approach. As a result, people erect nêu trees on Lunar December 23 and lower them on Lunar January 7.

As stipulated in the ritual code of the Nguyen Dynasty, raising the royal nêu tree signaled the start of the court’s Tet holidays. Under Minh Mang’s reign, mandarins were ordered to stop receiving official letters, put seals into storage and erect nêu trees on Lunar December 25. The emperor oversaw the first nêu tree erection ceremony before the Palace of Supreme Peace in the Royal Citadel. Afterwards, princes and other royals hosted similar rituals at temples, sacrificial areas and ancestral mausoleums. These ceremonies were held to welcome Tet and present offerings to the ancestors in the hope they would aid their offspring. The court also erected nêu trees to pray for favourable weather and prosperity for the people.

The nêu tree procession enters the Eastern gate

In preparation for this ritual, court officials chose straight and tall stalks of bamboo with bunches of green leaves still attached at the top. Four sticks of bamboo were placed vertically and interlaced with five horizontal sticks to form a woven square. Resembling a rough mat, this item represents Buddhist law and was hung from the nêu tree. Following sacrifices to the deities, the ceremonial host tied a bamboo or rattan basket containing some bills of cash, betel and areca, red spirit papers (featuring the deities’ names), ink brushes and seals to the top of the tree. A long red sash was tied to the top to flutter in the wind. The bamboo pole was raised to stand straight up, and left standing until Lunar January 7 when the court held the nêu lowering procession (Há tiêu) and took the royal seals out of storage to start another year of work. This marked the end of the fortnightlong Tet holidays.

Sacrifice ceremonies

The ceremony to raise the nêu tree was reenacted two years ago in the Hue Royal Citadel, drawing huge crowds of locals and visitors. Based on meticulous research, the Center for Heritage Preservation of the Hue Former Citadel raised the nêu tree on Lunar December 23 and lowered it on Lunar January 7. The raising ceremony began with a procession that carried the nêu tree from outside the Royal Palace, through Hien Nhon Gate to the east to approach the Ancestral Temple. The procession comprised mandarins, elderly people, representatives of royal subclans, the royal orchestra and soldiers carrying the nêu tree.

Accompanied by vibrant music, the nêu tree procession marched into the Royal Palace to the chosen location before Hien Lam Pavilion. Offerings to deities were placed on altars and money, betel and arecas, an ink brush and a seal were placed into a rattan basket. Following various ceremonies, this basket was tied to the top of the nêu tree. After the nêu tree was raised at the Ancestral Temple, the ceremony was repeated before Long An Palace (the main hall in Bao Dinh Palace of Emperor Thieu Tri) and other sites in the Hue Royal Citadel complex.

The raising of the nêu tree signals the arrival of Tet

On Lunar January 7, nêu tree lowering ceremonies were hosted with similar rituals. Following the Farewell Ceremony and Ordinance Burning Ritual, the nêu tree was lowered and the rattan basket removed. The seal was used to notarize good wishes written in calligraphy, such as Happiness, Fortune, Talent, Morality, Soul, Success,… for both visitors and the locals.

Vietnamese people have a long history of raising nêu trees to welcome the Lunar New Year. An old verse states: “Fatty pork, prickled onions, red parallel sentences/High nêu trees, firecrackers and green chưng cakes”.

In the Former Citadel of Hue, the reenactment of ceremonies to raise and lower nêu trees revived ancient cultural practices and added meaning to the Tet celebrations of both locals and visitors. Following these reenactments, several pagodas and villages around the Former Citadel have decided to raise their own nêu trees before Tet, adding to the vibrant atmosphere of Hue during the Tet holidays.