Story: Prof. Dr. TRINH SINH
Photos: PHAM DUNG, KIM DUNG, KHANH PHAN
Through the ages, Vietnamese people have welcomed the Lunar New Year with solemn rituals, traditional food, and wholesome fun.
In the Vietnamese consciousness, Tet is the biggest holiday of the year. Tet is a derivative of tiet, meaning “period of weather”, the transition from winter to spring, and also the occasion for all life to bloom and grow.
The historical text An Nam chi luoc (published in 1335) described the New Year celebrations of the Tran royal court in Thang Long. “On the Lunar New Year’s Eve, the emperor sits at the center of Doan Cung Gate for the courtiers to pay obeisance. Once done, they all watch performers singing and dancing in a hundred ways. The people open their doors, light bamboo firecrackers, and prepare offerings of food, tea, and liquor to their ancestors. On the first morning of the First Day, at around the fifth canh (3 to 5 a.m.), the emperor sits in Vinh Tho Hall. Courtiers in the emperor’s inner circle pay their respects to him first, then enter Truong Xuan Palace to pray before the tombs. In the early morning, the emperor sits in Thien An Hall while his descendants and servants line up to kowtow and thrice offer him liquor. On the Second Day of Tet, all officials perform their own ceremonies at home. On the Third Day, the emperor sits in Dai Hung Pavilion to watch his grandsons and inner palace officials play ball. Anyone who catches the ball without letting it fall to the ground wins. The ball, the size of a child’s fist, is made from embroidered silk with tassels formed by up to 20 silk strands. The Fifth Day is devoted to the ceremony of lowering the Neu pole. After feasting, officials and commoners visit pagodas and temples to pray, and sightsee in flower gardens.”
nces, firing of fireworks, and Bội s Tet is a sacred time for Vietnamese people. Therefore, before Tet, a massive migration occurs as millions of people return home from around the world. Historically, Tet is considered incomplete without “fatty meat, pickled cabbage and onions, red couplets, Neu poles, firecrackers, and Chung cake.” Perhaps banh chung is the most authentic Vietnamese cake, as its origins are recounted in the story of Lang Lieu, who made and presented glutinous rice cakes to the Hung King. Rich or poor, all Vietnamese prepare a feast that serves as an offering on New Year’s Eve. This is a symbolic invitation for the ancestors to return home and enjoy traditional dishes, after which their descendants can reap their blessings.
Preparations for Tet usually begin after the farewell ritual for the Land Genie and Kitchen Gods, who travel to Heaven on the 23 rd of the twelfth lunar month. Every family rushes to buy food, make cakes, pound pork patties, and preserve fruit. Attention is also paid to decorating the house: erecting the Neu pole in front of the door, and buying folk paintings and couplets to display on the altar, the house’s façade, and indoors. Vietnamese people also customarily adorn their houses with plants such as cherry blossoms, apricot flowers, narcissi, and kumquat trees as wishes for a luckfilled year. Before Tet, people try to pay off any debts as it’s considered unlucky to leave debts to the coming year. On the first day of the new year, sweeping the house is forbidden for fear of brushing away the blessings of the start of spring.
A spiritual custom that’s important to many families is choosing someone with a compatible zodiac sign to the homeowner to be the “first caller” (xong dat) on the first day of the year. The person chosen as the first to enter the owner’s house after New Year’s Eve is expected to bring luck and peace. Tet is also the occasion to “celebrate age” (mung tuoi): typically new bills are placed in red envelopes and presented to grandparents, parents, and young children. For the educated, choosing a day to “begin writing” for the year is very important. Thus, many start right after New Year’s Eve. Tet is a time for the most important relationships, hence the saying: “Honor your father on the First Day, your mother on the Second Day, and your teacher on the Third.” In the past, Tet also extended after the first three days of the year with activities such as spring trips to pagodas and requesting calligraphers to write characters
The modern world has simplified many traditional Lunar New Year activities, but Tet remains a spiritual constant for Vietnamese people past and present.