Tết Nguyên Đán, Vietnam Lunar New Year

Tết Nguyên Đán (Vietnam Lunar New Year) is the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture. Translated to mean “the first morning of the first day”, Tet (in short) is the Vietnamese version of the Lunar New Year and can be considered an all in one festival. It features aspects of the western Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Halloween and Birthday. Many East Asia countries celebrate the Lunar New Year which originated from China. However, like Vietnam, each of these countries has incorporated characteristic rituals and celebrations that are indigenous to their regions, and are harmonious with their cultural history and geographical climate. Tết Nguyên Đán, Vietnam Lunar New Year

In a land where agriculture is still of great importance to the livelihoods of many, Tet is a perfect way to celebrate the union of nature, human, culture, the living and the dead. Through the beliefs in the symbolic representation of plants to future happiness and fortune; through the gifts and respect plants represent to ancestors and gods; and through the foods meticulously prepared that brings families together in gastronomic enjoyment – the rituals and celebrations of Tet is holistic, and always mindful of the connection between humans and their natural and spiritual world.

This year Tet begins on February 19th and according to Vietnamse Zodiac, 2015 represents the year of the Goat. The actual day of Tet is determined by the Lunar Calendar and usually falls in late January or early February (Western calendar).

Tet is a time for family reunions, the payment of debts, the avoidance of arguments, special foods, new clothes, flowers and new beginnings. Great importance is attached to starting the new year properly because it is believed that the first day and first week of the new year will determine one’s fortunes for the rest of the year.

Preparation for Tet

A week before Tet….Tết Nguyên Đán, Vietnam Lunar New Year

According to legend, seven days before Tet every year, the Kitchen God (The god of Hearth) returns to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the activities of each household and these reports will determine the fate of each household for the coming year. In preparation for the Kitchen God’s departure, families sometimes place cookies by the fireplace or altar to sweeten the God’s journey in hope of a favorable report that would endow them with fortune and happiness for the coming year.

Upon the departure of the Kitchen God, follows the week long period called “Tat Nien” –  literally means to extinguish the year. During this time, people celebrate the end of schooling or work activities and many take the opportunity to visit and clean the graves of ancestors and relatives. Weeds are cleared, incense is burnt and flowers and a fruit tray or Mam Ngu Qua are offered in remembrance and respect for the dead.

By now, the city streets are lined with vendors selling an abundance of fresh fruits and flowers, and colorful decorative paraphernalia. Exuberant shoppers bustle and jostle amidst calls for sales and the family tunes of traditional Tet music. In nearly every household, crucial purchases for Tet include the peach (hoa dao), apricot (hoa mai) and kumquat plants. Each of these plants are carefully chosen by discerning shoppers so that the flowers and fruits are prominently displayed, vibrant in color, and remain healthy throughout the celebrations.

At home the cooking, decorating and cleaning for Tet heightens. Since it is traditional that all cooking and housework are avoided during the first three days of Tet, many spend Tat Nien preparing Tet delicacies, preening and decorating the house with symbolic plants such as cay neu, hoa dao, hoa mai and kumquat, and decorative red banners called cau doi in preparation of the arrival of the esteemed guests and relatives during the coming days of celebrations.

The eve of Tet

The eve of Tet is filled with excitement and anticipation of the New Year. As the clock strikes twelve, the Giao Thua ceremony commences, marking the end of the previous year and the beginning of a new one. At the Buddhist temples, bells ring and prayers are chanted; while at home, families gather to usher in and congratulate each other on the New Year and for turning a year older as Tet also represents a universal birthday to all. Incense sticks are burnt and prayers are said to welcome family ancestors to join in the feasting and celebration of Tet. In the streets, the air is filled with shouts of cheers and previously the explosive sounds of firecrackers (used until the government banned it in 1995)

Tet and subsequent days….

The first day of Tet is probably the most exciting time of the holiday for both adults and children. It signifies a new beginning, cleansing of past misfortunes and hopes for a brighter future. Since it is believed that the actions that one takes on Tet is consequential to how the rest of the year would unfold, adults and children alike make an effort to be in a jovial mood and avoid negative actions and behaviors towards fellow friends and relatives. Dressed in new attires, family members unite to welcome the most important day of Vietnamese culture with the first of many days of feasting and merry making to come. Children often eagerly await for Mung Tuoi, a gift giving ritual when parents, grandparents or relatives present gifts of Lixi or Lucky money in traditional red packet and offer words of wisdom or advice for the coming year.

Visiting relatives and friends is one of the key activities during Tet. The order of visitations depends on your blood relation and your status is society. The first morning of Tet is usually celebrated amongst immediate family members including the husband’s parents and with esteemed guests who are of respectable social status and whose presence are believed to bring luck to the household. The second day of Tet is generally dedicated to visiting the wife’s parents and extended relatives. By the third day of Tet, people would visit the homes of teachers, friends, bosses or colleagues. This is also day when the spirits of ancestors return to heaven and families would offer gifts of money and luxury goods such as cars and clothing to their deceased relatives by burning miniature paper versions. Many Buddhists also visit the temples to pray for a safe and happy new year as well as to have their fortunes.

Some Vietnamese New Year Customs

1. Clean and decorate the home:  Homes are often cleaned and decorated before New Year's Eve. Children are in charge of sweeping and scrubbing the floor. The kitchen needs to be cleaned before the 23rd night of the last month. Usually, the head of the household cleans the dust and ashes (from incense) from the ancestral altars. It is a common belief that cleaning the house will get rid of the bad fortunes associated with the old year. Some people would paint their house and decorate with festive items. 

2. Literally means "getting new clothes": This is often the most exciting part of the Vietnamese New Year among children. Parents usually purchase new clothes and shoes for their children a month prior to the New Year. However, children cannot wear their new clothes until the first day of the New Year and onward. The best outfit is always worn on the first day of the year. 

3. The aura of the earth Giao Thua is the most sacred time of the year. Therefore, the first houseguest to offer the first greeting is very important. If that particular guest has a good aura (well respected, well educated, successful, famous, etc.), then the family believes that they will receive luck and good fortune throughout the year. The belief of "Xong Dat" still remains nowadays, especially among families with businesses. The first visitor of New Year’s Day is considered very important and great care is taken to ensure that they be happy, wealthy and of high status. 

4. Giving away red envelopes (filled with lucky money): This is a cultural practice that has been maintained for generations. The red envelopes symbolize luck and wealth. It is very common to see older people giving away sealed red envelopes to younger people. Before the younger ones could receive the envelopes, they have to perform a certain greeting. Reciprocally, the older ones would return good advice and words of wisdom, encouraging the younger ones to keep up with the schoolwork, live harmoniously with others, and obey their parents. This greeting ritual and Li Xi is also known as Mung Tuoi, honoring the achievement of another year to one’s life.

Symbolic meanings of Tet plants and fruits

1. The plate of five fruits: A plate filled with five types of fruits sits on the ancestor’s altar in every Vietnamese home during the New Year. The fruits are colorful and meaningful. They make New Year more lively and sacred. In Asian mythology, the world is made of five basic elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. The plate of fruits on the family altar at New Year is one of several ways to represent this concept. The plate of fruits also represents the desire for good crops and prosperity. The plate of fruits traditionally contains five to eight types: a bunch of bananas, a grapefruit, "Buddha’s-hand" fruit, a lemon, oranges, tangerines, apples, or persimmons. Families choose only the best looking fruit, which are arranged in a pyramid. This practice has changed with modern lifestyles. Other fruits such as sapodilla, watermelons, coconuts, and custard apples may be added to the plate. Some families even use flowers and small colored electric lights to decorate the plate.The names of these fruits in Vietnam echo words signifying prayers for wealth. The plate of fruits gives the family altar a cozy and colorful look. It helps to stress the importance of family traditions and family life. 

2. Parallel sentences: On New Year’s Day, every home like to have a pair of parallel sentences composed and written by a scholar on red paper and hung in the place of honor, usually on both sides of the entrance door or of the ancestors’ altar.Here are two pairs of well-known, old New Year parallel sentences: "Fat meat, pickled onions, red parallel sentencesNew Year pole, strings of firecrackers, green Chung cake."On the New Years’ Eve, pay debts on all sides; bending your legs, kick out poverty. On New Years’ day, rice wine makes your drunk; stretching your arms, carry in wealth. 

3. The New Year tree: In the countryside, preparations come to and end with the raising of the New Year tree or Cay Neu in Vietnamese. The New Year tree is a piece of a bamboo five or six yards long is stripped bare excerpt for a little bunch of leaves. Near the top is suspended a round bamboo frame holding a few little fish and bells made of baked clay that tinkle softly in the wind. Beneath this frame are votive gifts and some thorny branches. At the top of the New Year tree, a small kerosene lamp is lit at night. The New Year tree marks the way for the ancestor’s spirits who came back from the other world to enjoy New Year with the living. Evil spirits are scared away by the thorns and the tinkling of the bells. Other precautions are also taken: villagers use lime powder to sketch a drawn bow on their courtyards. The arrows of the bow are supposed to frighten away evil spirits. 

Besides Cay Neu, there are still other plants being decorated during Vietnamese Tet like: Peach blossom, apricot flowers and Kumquat: 

Peach blossom are an essential symbolic and decorative plant of all households during Tet. It is used to ward off evil spirits during the Tet celebrations. The symbol of its power originated because two legendary deities -- Tra and Uat Luy once lived on a large peach tree in a village located East of the Soc Son Mountain, in North Vietnam. They were powerful deities and evil spirits so feared them that even the sight of a peach plant would scare the evil spirits away. At the end of the every lunar year however, the deities have to return to heaven for an annual meeting, leaving the villagers defenseless. To fight against the evil spirits during the deities’ absence, villagers displayed peach plants in their homes and these were sufficient to scare the evil spirits away. 

Apricot flowers: Flower buds and blossoms are the symbols for new beginning. These two distinctive flowers are widely sold and purchased during Tet. Hoa Mai are the yellow apricot flowers often seen in Southern Viet Nam. Hoa Mai are more adaptable to the hot weather of southern regions, thus, it is known as the primary flower in every home. Hoa Dao are the warm pink of the peach blossoms that match well with the dry, cold weather from the North. Tet is not Tet if there is no sight of Hoa Mai (south) or Hoa Dao (north) in every home.

The Kumquat plant symbolically represents the many generations of a household. The fruits are grandparents, the flowers are parents, the buds are children, and the light green leaves are children. It literally is a family tree! Kumquat plants are often carefully selected for their symmetrical leaves, color and shape of fruit.

Vietnamese New Year Foods

One of the most traditional special foods for New Year (Tet) of Vietnamese is Banh Chung or sticky rice cake. Banh Chung is made of sticky rice, pork meat and green bean, every ingredient is wrapper inside a special leaf which calls Dong. Making the Banh Chung requires care and precision in every step. The rice and green bean has to be soaked in water for a day to make it stickier. The pork meat is usually soaked with pepper for several hours. Squaring off and tying the cakes with bamboo strings require skillful hands to make it a perfect square.

Banh Chung is a must among other foods to be placed on the ancestors’ altars during Tet holiday. In the old time, one or two days before Tet, every family prepares and cooks the Banh Chung around the warm fire. It is also the time for parents to tell their children folklore stories. Nowadays, families which live in villages still maitain making Banh Chung before New Years but the people in the city does not. They don't have time and prefer to go to the shop to buy it. 

The traditional Tet cuisine normally includes pig’s trotters stewed with bamboo shoots, steamed glutinous rice, bitter gourd, stir fried almond, papaya salad and mung bean pudding. Candied fruits snacks called Mut are also served to guests. However different regions of Vietnam may feature unique food specialties of Tet and some are famous for their Tet delicacies. In the cooler North, the glutinous rice cakes served are called Banh Chung and these are squarish in shape. The ancient imperial city of Hue, located in central Vietnam presumably boasts one of the best Tet cuisines as a result of the historical culinary delights created for the royalty. Here, the glutinous rice cake is a rounded version called Banh Tet. Mut are a specialty of this region and is made from various fruits such as pumpkins, apples, oranges, ginger root and even flower blossoms. With the warmer climate moving South, the cuisine takes on a tropical flare with coconut milk and oil forming the basis of Tet delicacies such as Thit Heo Kho or pork stewed in coconut milk.. Tet dishes are usually eaten with pickled green sprouts with leeks, carrots and turnips, which aids in the digestion of rich food. Recently, the desire for healthier eating and living has also resulted in some families adopting a vegetarian version of Tet cuisine. Innovative cooks have created vegetarian versions of the meaty dishes such as “beef” wrapped in La Lot (long pepper) leaves and boiled “pork” pie using the beans of soy and curd soybean (tofu).

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