Story: Nguyen Trung
Photos: Vu Minh Quan
A traditional Vietnamese home, no matter how rustic and simple, was always meticulously kept and decorated during Tet. The result was a space of reverence fit for worshipping one’s ancestors and offering family members a place to reunite and unwind after a year away at work. A household during the Tet holidays could serve as a vivid exhibition of Vietnamese routines and customs, one that, even with the addition of modern conveniences, still preserves Vietnamese people’s quintessential warmth.
Tet decorations can be objects designed for ceremony, adornment, entertainment, or all of the above, making the family feel festive, connecting the household with the village and neighborhood, and rendering the world much more vibrant than usual.
Five Phases amidst the mortal realm
“Fatty meat, pickled veggies, red couplets
Bamboo pole, firecrackers, green bánh chưng”
The most familiar proverb about Tet essentials links objects used for familial ancestral rites with their respective purposes. Foods offered to our ancestors are delicacies linked to our ancestors’ agrarian lifestyle, the very fruits of our farmers’ labor harvested from the fields and barnyards. A green bánh chưng representing the Earth is placed upon the altar between a pair of couplets written in black ink on red-dyed paper, creating an elegant unity of colors.
At the center of the Tet altar lies a flavorful and colorful five-fruit tray. Here in the North, the tray symbolizes the Five Phases – green bananas for Wood, yellow pomelos or fingered citrons for Earth, red chilies or reddish-orange tangerines and kumquats for Fire, and so on. Meanwhile, in the South, the tray might be made up of sugar-apples, figs, coconuts, papayas, and mangoes, whose names put together forms “cầu sung vừa đủ xài,” which sounds similar to “wishing for sufficient wealth.” The altar must incorporate a set of three or five well-cleaned ceremonial objects, along with candles.
Families of noble descent will unveil ancestral tablets usually hidden under a red cloth or beneath curtains. Some may also perform bao sái – using scented water to wipe the censer clean and remove used incense sticks – in preparation for arranging New Year ancestral offerings. Long sugarcane rods are sometimes placed on both sides of the altar to mimic ladders from which one’s ancestors can descend to join family members for Tet.
Once upon a time, the acts of erecting cây nêu, painting bows and arrows with lime paste in the front yard, decorating the house with peach blossoms, or setting off firecrackers were all meant to ward off havoc-wreaking ghosts and demons. These items are associated with old folk tales, such as one about a pair of evil-fighting gods who lived in the shade of a giant mountain peach tree. Since the gods ascended to Heaven as the year ended, people would take peach blossom branches home to adorn their ancestral altars or draw these two gods on red sheets of paper that they glued to their front steps to repel evil spirits during Tet.
A cây nêu erected (or “planted”) in the yard is a bamboo tree with the root section cut off and all of its leaves still intact. Ritual objects are hung from it such as chimes made of baked clay that ring with each gust of wind. A cây nêu announces that the land is occupied and off-limits to malicious spirits looking to cause trouble. At the top, people hang a bundle of pineapple leaves or a banyan tree branch that resembles a scythe to terrify the spirits. They also draw bows and arrows pointing eastward and scatter lime powder in front of their houses to further scare off evil forces. The legend explaining the origins of cây nêu reflects ancient humans’ determined fight for survival against invasive forces and calamities they blamed on the supernatural, expressing their resolve through ordinary village items.
A harmonious home and worldview
These rituals reveal early Vietnamese people’s artistic sensibilities, exposing the harmony of order in their worldview. Mythical elements often fade into the background to put the focus on the colors, materials, and order in which various items are presented and can be observed around the ancestral altar and areas where guests are hosted.
At the center of the door frame, people hung the Chinese character Phúc upside down as a play on words which means “fortune will come to this household.” They decorated the usually bare walls with Tet drawings depicting the year’s zodiac animal or carrying meanings of fortune and prosperity, such as “mã đáo thành công” (the returning horse bring great success) and “vinh hoa, phú quý” (for wealth and prosperity). Literary elites hung calligraphic paintings, Confucian ideographs, or couplets drafted at the dawn of spring. Ordinary folks laid out traditional toy figurines, while the rich showed off ceramic tea sets or bronze embellishments with a motif corresponding to their lucky horoscope sign for the year.
House decorating is also a hobby. Many Vietnamese people arrange flowers whose symbolic meanings are associated with Tet, like daffodils, orchids, showy crabapple trees, or camellias. Popular potted plants range from typical kumquats to various bonsai, such as curtain fig, weeping fig, freshwater mangrove, and cluster fig trees. At the center of the guest table sits a pot of tea brewed from naturally aromatic dried tea leaves, along with dried candied fruit, and plates of fresh fruit arranged in animal shapes. Occasionally, they are accompanied by a plate of areca nuts and betel leaves arranged to look like phoenix wings, a display of female housekeeping talent linked to the custom of “offering betel leaves to guests as a conversation starter.” After a century of mingling with Western culture, modernization introduced new floral décor options like dahlias, gladioli, violets, and the now popular lilies and tulips.
Renowned author Nguyen Tuan, in the short story Hương cuội (The scent of pebbles), found in his collection Vang bóng một thời (Once upon an old-time), wrote of how old-time Confucianists celebrated Tet with a traditional hobby. They would thoroughly wash some white pebbles, coat them in mạch nha, a sweetener made from germinated rice grains, and stack them neatly at the base of a pot of Master’s cymbidium. Having soaked up the white orchids’ fragrance since New Year, as soon as the frosty east winds arrived, the pebbles would be ready to be nibbled on by wistful souls nostalgic for the taste of yesteryear. Tet would become the time to indulge in the beauty of daffodils blossoming on New Year’s Eve, the sweetness of confectionaries, the bitterness of tea, the fiery taste of distilled liquor, and a line of poetry by Nguyen Du long engraved in our hearts: “Yet last year’s peach blossoms smiled with the wind.”