Tet, or Lunar New Year, is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. The word is a shortened form of Tet Nguyen Dan, which is Sino-Vietnamese for "Feast of the First Morning of the First Day".
Tet celebrates the arrival of the spring based on the Vietnamese calendar, which usually has the date falling in January or February (2017 date: Jan 28, 2018 date: Feb 16). Tet is generally celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, except when the one-hour time difference between Vietnam and China results in new moon occurring on different days.
Vietnam has its own Tet traditions, which have developed over generations, and epitomize the country’s cultural identity. Although very ceremonious, Tet is first and foremost a family holiday and people generally return home during this time. Therefore, there are customs that every Vietnamese still practice nowadays, such as renewal, decorations, ancestor’s gravesites, first visitors…
IN THE DAYS LEADING UP TO NEW YEAR’S EVE
The Lunar New Year holiday begins two weeks before the actual festival, the general atmosphere leading up to Tet is lively and bustling. People decorate their homes and begin cooking special Tet dishes, in anticipation of their loved ones returning home. Since many stores close during the holiday, people also tend to stock up on food and supplies ahead of the official holiday.
Tet remarks the return of spring and new beginnings. Old things are replaced with new item to usher in the New Year. Many people try to pay off their debts in advance, for the believe that if they own money on the New Year, debts would have a great impact on their credibility and business. Parents buy new clothes for their children to wear on during Tet, women rush to get their haircut, drivers wash their car, and everyone tidies up their homes. People also paint their house.
Various kinds of flowers and fruits are placed around the house to welcome Tet. Hoa Dao (Peach) is a typical flower that blossoms around Tet in the cold northern areas of Vietnam, while in the South, Tet is full of Hoa Mai (Mickey Mouse) blossoms. These flowers are symbols of spiritual blessings. On every family’s ancestor altar, five different types of fruit are displayed on a tray to reflect the family’s wishes for a prosperous New Year. Most Lunar New Year decorations involve red color – representing good luck and prosperity!
The Kitchen God
Vietnamese believe that at the end of every year, on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month, the Kitchen God departs to Heaven to report to Jade Emperor on every family’s affairs over the course of the year. On that day, Vietnamese present offerings of food and drinks as farewell ceremony to the Kitchen God, and release golden cap fishes (they bought from the market) to the river or lake for the God to ride to the heaven.
After tidying and decorating their houses, between the 23th and 30th day of the twelfth lunar month, Vietnamese visit their ancestors’ graves. The gravesites must also be cleaned and decorated. Then the oldest member of the family performs a proper ritual (offering food, wine, cakes, fruits, and burning incense) to invite the souls of the ancestors to go home and to join the celebrations with the family.
GIAO THUA – NEW YEAR’S EVE
Giao means crossing or meeting in Vietnamese, while thua means successor. When the two words are combined, giao thua literally means “the passage from the old to the new year”, or New Year’s Eve. Ritual offerings are performed and wishes are bestowed on grandparents and parents to celebrate this special moment.
Xong Nha - the first visitor of the New Year
It is believed that the first person to visit one’s home in the New Year will bring good fortune or bad luck. Therefore, selecting the right first visitor is quite important. This all depend on several factors, such as age, business experience, luck, and one’s general happiness over the past year. Some household even lock their door while waiting for their first caller. So unless you are invited, it’s probably best not to visit anybody on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. If one can’t find a good candidate to be the first visitor, then members of that family can serve as the honored first guest.
Li Xi (lucky) money
Li Xi is a red envelope filled with a small amount of “lucky money” given to kids, single young adults, and elderly people. This exchange signifies the li xi giver’s wish that the recipient will have luck in their life and in their studies, or wishing long live the elderly people. Upon receiving the red envelope, people also give their best wishes to the giver as a thank you.
The first three days
During the first three days of the new year, relatives, friends, colleagues are frequent visitors. People traditionally visit immediate family members first. The first day of the year is important day and is reserved for family; people stay at home, visit relatives, and exchange best wishes for the coming year. The second day is also reserved for family and visits to maternal and paternal relatives. The third day is for visiting extended family, teachers, colleague and friends. Ritual offerings are performed throughout each of these days.
In Vietnamese, to celebrate Tet is “an tet”, which literally mean to eat Tet. This show how important food and cuisine is to the Vietnamese New Year. Traditional Tet foods include banh chung (steamed sticky rice cakes), canh mang (dried bamboo shoot soup), hanh muoi (picked onions), xoi gac (steamed baby jackfruit and glutinous rice), and mut (preserved sweeten fruits), just to name some.
SUPERSTITIOUS AND TABOOS
- Since the first three days of Tet are thought to influence the luck for the coming year, people are often very careful of what they say and do. Taboos at this time include:
- No cleaning, sweeping or dusting is to be done on New Year’s day for fear that good fortune will be swept away.
- No gifts of medicine or anything sharp. A present like this might bring disease or danger to the home.
- No arguing, harsh words or crying. This is an indication of a bad year to come.
- No breaking dishes, mirrors. As it symbolizes a fracture in the family relations.
- No dressing in black or white, which is an omen of death and mourning.
- No refusing anything that others give or wish you during Tet.