Story: Le Anh
Photos: Thanh The Vinh

Across many different cultures throughout the ages, fire is a symbol of hope, lighting the way toward our dreams and ambitions. Since it’s believed that fire can ward off misfortune and bring good luck, it holds great spiritual value for many people.

Villagers carry bamboo torches lit from the eternal flame

From Vietnam’s plains to its high mountains, fire is key in many rituals and festivities, including the Dao and Pa Then people’s Fire Dancing Festival in the Northern Highlands, and the Lunar New Year Torchlight Procession in Canh Duong fishing village in Quang Binh province.

As 2021 – the Lunar Year of the Ox – approaches, let’s explore an ancient Lunar New Year ceremony in La Xuyen village, Yen Ninh commune, Y Yen district, Nam Dinh province. This village holds a special Lunar New Year Torchlight Procession.

The head priest leads this ritual

According to legend, during the Dinh and Early Le dynasties, after defeating foreign invaders, General Ninh Huu Huan, a talented officer under Le Hoan, the Commander of the Ten Army Forces, was ordered to explore the region by the Sat River (today part of Yen Ninh commune) and build settlements in this area. As villages were established in this wild region, General Ninh Huu Huan, who was also a master carpenter, taught the locals the art of carpentry.

To this day, he is honored in the La Xuyen Communal House as the founder of the village’s carpentry trade. A custom established by King Le Dai Hanh is still practiced in this village, namely to: “Light a torch with the sacred flame on Lunar December 30th to bring good luck and wealth to your family, and to pray for a good harvest season and the prosperity of the village’s carpentry trade.”

Everyone rushes toward the sacred flame and uses it to light their torch

To honor the founder’s contributions to the carpentry trade and follow the king’s orders, to this day, the people of La Xuyen village still light torches from the sacred flame in the communal house.

The key figure in this ritual is the head priest, who is tasked with opening the communal house’s gates on Lunar New Year’s Eve to ask the craft’s founder, enshrined as the village god, to grant them the sacred flame. The head priest is chosen from among the wisest village elders to perform these ancient rites. On the afternoon of Lunar December 30th, the head priest, other priests, priestesses, and villagers gather at the communal house to present carefully-prepared offerings to the village god.

Each family sends a man bearing a 4.5m-long bamboo torch to the communal house as their representative. When the countdown to the new lunar year begins, the head priest opens the communal house’s gates and asks the village god to share the sacred flame with the villagers for the festivity. Cheered on by the crowd, the sacred flame is brought into the communal house’s yard. Everyone hurries toward the sacred flame and uses it to light their own torches. As the villagers carry these torches back home, every street and alley is filled with the sounds of cheerful footsteps, joyous laughter, and New Year’s wishes.

When the torches are brought home, the villagers light incense to honor the gods and ancestors before going around the house while whirling their lit torches. It’s believed that this fire can burn away evil, ward off misfortune, and bring luck and prosperity to the family.

The joy of spring’s arrival warms everyone in the village

Families with no representative to carry the sacred flame will be visited by their torch-bearing neighbors. In this way, the sacred flame also helps to strengthen ties between villagers. The gentle people of La Xuyen village keep the sacred flame – a symbol of hope and faith – burning for the three days of the Lunar New Year.                 

While today’s Lunar New Year lacks the boisterous sounds of firecrackers, the Torchlight Procession keeps a lively and festive spirit alive in rural La Xuyen. The joy of spring’s arrival warms everyone in this village.