Tet Nguyen Dan is the biggest and most important holiday in Vietnam to show respect and rememberance for ancestors. All family members gather together from all corners of the country after a year of hard work. Vietnam is a country of many religions and beliefs, thus, the duration of Tet is filled with traditions, rituals, and ceremonies. Let’s explore them one by one with helloVietnam, to understand why and how Vietnamese people celebrate their most sacred holiday.
Everyone cheerfully prepares for Tet (Source: Internet)
Tết Táo Quân – Worship the Kitchen Gods
(23rd of the last month of the lunar year)
Tet Tao Quan is one of the essential festivals in Vietnamese religious beliefs. Actually, Tet kicks off a week before the Lunar New Year actually begins. In fact, the festive atmosphere starts to fill the air starting on the 23rd of Lunar December.
Vietnamese people believe that each house has a trio of deities who protect and watch over their behavior for the whole year. On the 23rd, they will fly back to Heaven on a carp for an annual meet up with the Jade Emperor to report on all of the affairs in the house. The purpose of Tet Tao Quan is to host a grand farewell celebration for the trio.
Offerings to the Kitchen Gods (Source: Internet)
Each house makes offerings of incense, flowers, fruits, delicacies, and especially three votive paper carp. One large carp or three small carp in a bowl with water are kept aside. Once the ceremony is over, the carp are freed into a pond, lake, or river. Freeing the carp is a way to show respect and gratitude towards the animal world, as well as wish for a prosperous year.
(24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th of the last month of the lunar year)
Gift giving is a long traditional custom of Vietnam’s ancient culture, as a token of exchanging agricultural products, due to tough living conditions. The custom shows amiability among families as well as signifying their dream of prosperity and a bright future. Over time, the propriety has been well-preserved and passed down from generation to generation.
Children give parents and grandparents gifts (new clothes, scarves, etc.) to show gratitude and wish them health. People also give gifts to their in-laws, teachers, doctors, benefactors, lenders, friends, neighbors, bosses, etc. Although gift giving holds a very special meaning, understanding what to and what not to give is very important if the gift giver wants their gifts to be appreciated.
- Roosters: Symbolize high moral characteristics such as mighty, generous, and credible. Son-in-laws gift their In-laws with roosters to show that they are reliable husbands.
- A branch of peach blossom and other lucky flowers: Folktales say peach blossom can deter devils (see ornamental plants).
- New rice: Children give their parents rice to make offerings, show their gratitude, and wish them a year of plenty.
- Red items: New Year gifts generally have vibrant colors, especially red and gold. Red is a symbol of joy and luck.
- Rice wine, folk paintings, candies, tea, etc.
Do not give any of these gifts on the occasion of Tet:
- Clocks: In Chinese, clock “钟 (zhōng)” has the same pronunciation as death “终 (zhong)”.
- Pets: They need time to adjust to the new home, and until then, they are likely to engage in noisy, messy, and destructive behaviors. This is one of the things Vietnamese people avoid during New Year.
- Squid: Squid produces black ink, which is a no-no on the occasion of Tet, or even for the first few days of the lunar month. Vietnamese people will take it as you’re trying to “jinx” them.
- Cutlery: Knives and scissors are believed to trigger conflict.
- Pepper, fire, water, red roses, shoes, handkerchiefs, etc.
(28th, 29th, and 30th of the last month of the lunar year)
1. Clean the entire house and ancestral graves
This custom is considered as the cleansing of past misfortunes, hoping for a brighter future. Sweeping out the house and cleaning the ancestral graves is not only a purification ritual to avoid an unlucky year, but it is also a chance for everyone to spend some quality time with one another:
- Sort out the mess of last year, hoping for a smooth transition into the New Year.
- Wipe away the sadness, grief, and suffering.
- Attract wealth and prosperity into the house.
- Show respect and gratitude to ancestors.
- Perfect time to bond.
2. Make Chung cakes
Banh Chung is the heart and soul of Tet, dating back 3,000-4,000 years ago, in a contest to decide who would be the next Emperor. Prince Lang Lieu, the 18th prince of Hung Emperor invented the square Chung cake (symbolizing the Earth), and the round Day cake (symbolizing the sky), according to the Yin-Yang (Dark-Bright/Negative-Positive) philosophy. Thanks to the symbolic meaning and the delicious taste of the cakes, Prince Lang Lieu was selected to be the next Emperor.
During Tet, Vietnamese people make this cake to express gratitude to their ancestors and homeland, as well as remind the next generation of this ancient tradition. Chung cake is a square-shaped sticky rice cake with pork, green beans, and onions inside, wrapped in Dong leaves. The maker can use their hands or a mold to achieve a near perfect square shape.
Since the process of making Chung cake is really time-consuming (the cake is supposed to be boiled for about 12 hours over a wood fire), and requires the participation of several people, young families in big cities will buy Chung cakes instead. However, the tradition of making it by hand is still kept in the countryside.
3. Arrange the ancestral altar
An altar in a Vietnamese home in the Lunar New Year (Source: Internet)
Decorate the altar
Although the majority of Vietnamese people are atheist, they believe in an afterlife. Almost every household worships their deceased parents, relatives, and ancestors. According to their belief, the deceased have a power to protect and bring good fortune to living people.
An ancestral altar is a sacred place where special rites are performed to communicate with the dead (make offerings of incense, candles, flowers, and food on a number of occasions: Tet, ancestors’ death anniversaries, the first day and 15th day of the lunar month, funerals, weddings, etc.).
Since the altar is where the ancestors stay, it always occupies the highest and most prominent place in the house and has to be kept clean, especially on the occasion of Tet. Beginning at noon on the 30th of Lunar December, the light (candles and incense) has to be kept burning throughout the duration of Tet (till it’s time to Hoa Vang, or to burn the offerings, marking the end of Tet).
The offerings include flowers, incense, five-fruit trays, a boiled cock with a flower in his mouth, Chung cakes, dishes of steamed glutinous rice, rice wine, tea, and votive paper products (money, clothes, phones, houses, etc.). Arranging the ancestral altar has to be within the realms of Feng Shui.
Mam Ngu Qua – The Five-Fruit Tray
During Tet, extra attention is paid to the ancestral altar, of which the five fruit tray is the highlight. There have been several theories revolving around the five fruit tray:
- One of the theories says it is the symbol of the five basic elements of oriental philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. According to the philosophy, the number 5 is a lucky number, representing sustainable, powerful growth.
- Another theory states that it is the fruits of the family’s hard work consecrated to Heaven, Earth, and their ancestors, showing their gratitude and aspiration for a life of plenty.
Regardless, the five fruits impersonate the quintessence that Heaven and Earth bless humans with while expressing their gratitude. A Vietnamese saying goes like this: “Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây” ("When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree").
The name “five-fruit tray” denotes the number of fruit types on a tray. However, since there are more and more types of fruits available on the market, the number is no longer fixed. People from different regions have different cultural backgrounds as well as each region has its own climate, weather pattern, and fruit crops. Thus, what types of fruits to use depends on the region.
- In the North, people display their five-fruit tray based on the 5 basic element philosophy, hence, the fruits are chosen accordingly (color-based). The tray is generally ornamented with bananas, pomelos, peaches, kumquats, and persimmons.
- In the South, people prefer custard apples (mãng cầu), coconuts (dừa), papayas (đu đủ), mangos (xoài), and cluster figs (sung) as they rhyme with the saying: “Cầu vừa đủ xài sung túc”, which means “praying for a life with comfort and sufficiency in spending”. They also avoid using bananas, pears, oranges, tangerines, etc. as they rhyme with some of the unlucky words. Fruits that are bitter or spicy are also considered inappropriate.
- People in Central Vietnam are pretty laid back when it comes to arranging their five-fruit tray, as long as the fruits have beautiful and lively colors.
4. Bring home ornamental plants and flowers
Vietnamese people decorate their homes and offices with various ornamental plants: peach blossom, kumquat trees, and yellow apricot blossom. These plants represent warmth, wealth, and good luck for the upcoming year.
In the past, Vietnamese people used to grow their own ornamental plants in their gardens. However, with rapid urbanization, most families opt to buy them from the market. Ornamental trees are then decorated with colorful light bulbs, red envelops, chains of gold coins, and New Year cards.
Kumquat trees, in the Vietnamese belief system, are symbolic of a bountiful yield and great beginning. A kumquat tree represents many generations with the fruits representing grandparents, the flowers representing parents, the buds representing children, and the light green leaves representing grandchildren.
The best tree is the one with many golden-yellow fruits and has to be picked carefully according to certain Feng Shui (Wind and Water) rules. An ideal kumquat tree has large, dark green and shiny leaves with some light green sprouts, while the fruits (both ripe and green) look luscious and are of the same size (looking like gold coins). Such a tree symbolizes fertility and fruitfulness and is prominently displayed in the house in hopes of having a fruitful new year full of joy, luck, and wealth.
Peach blossom (in the North)
According to a Vietnamese legend, once upon a time up on a gigantic peach tree, lived two mighty deities. They protected the people who lived under the trees and in the surrounding areas from the Devils. The Devils were so afraid of the deities that even the sight of a peach tree scared them. When the deities had to fly back to Heaven to meet with the Jade Emperor at the end of the lunar year, people displayed a branch of the peach tree to scare away the Devils.
Apricot blossom (in the South)
Vietnamese people are taught that they descended from a dragon and a fairy, who gave birth to the Hung Kings – the ones who created the Vietnamese race. The golden yellow of the flowers indicates the roots of the Vietnamese people and has the meaning of prosperity and well being for the family.
Other than the above three ornamental plants, Vietnamese people use many other types of flowers to decorate the ancestral altar and the entire house. Gerbera daisies, narcissuses, camellias, daisies, etc. are lucky flowers used to brighten up the living room and bring good luck into the house.
Making offerings of flowers is considered making offerings of good deeds to Buddhas, gods, and ancestors, expressing their gratitude. Buddhist devotees believe in the law of Cause and Effect, which is “You reap what you sow”, of which, the flowers are the cause. There are certain rules for flowers on the altar:
- What to use: Chrysanthemums are the most commonly used, especially yellow chrysanthemums, which symbolize fortune. Another type of flower Vietnamese people use is gladiolus. Gladioli are elegant and available in a multitude of colors; however, only one color should be used when it comes to decorating the altar to give off solemn vibes. There is also the red rose, the queen of flowers, which is symbolic of endless happiness and longevity.
- What not to use: Marigolds possess a distinctive bitter odor. Jasmines are not considered decent and are used to talk about easy girls or girls that often encounter hardships. Vietnamese people also avoid using orchids, lilies, wildflowers, plumerias, hibiscuses, etc.
(The 30th of the last month of the old lunar year and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of the first month of the new lunar year)
1. New Year’s Eve – 30th, December
Launching firecrackers in Ho Chi Minh City (Source: Internet)
Before Tet, a New Year tree or Cây Nêu is planted in the yard in front of the house to claim ownership of the land and ward off devils and evil spirits. It’s actually a bamboo tree (5-6m tall) stripped off of its leaves, except for a tuff on top. The tree is ornamented with decorative red paper and bells, flowers, good-luck charms, origami fish, cactus branches, etc.
On the Eve of the Lunar New Year, each family prepares a splendid feast and holds a ceremony to bid farewell to the old mandarins (in charge of the Earth), as well as welcome the new ones and their ancestors to their homes.
New Year’s Eve officially marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one once the clock strikes midnight. Traditionally, Vietnamese people used to light firecrackers to ward off any evil spirits and dissipate any gloomy thoughts. However, the tradition was banned since 1995 due to safety reasons. Big cities will launch fireworks on New Year’s Eve instead. But many families in the countryside still light fireworks and firecrackers in celebration of the New Year regardless.
Many people visit pagodas, temples, and shrines after New Year’s Eve when the ceremony is already over. They bring back some incense sticks (hương lộc) that they burnt for the worshipping rituals, as well as some buds in the yards of the sacred places that they picked on the way back (hái lộc đầu xuân – spring bud-picking).
2. The three days of Tet
In Vietnamese culture:
“Mồng một thì ở nhà cha,
Mồng hai nhà vợ, mồng ba nhà thầy.”
“Mồng một Tết cha, mồng hai Tết mẹ, mồng ba Tết thầy.”
Which literally means: Visit paternal side on the first day, maternal side on the second day, and teacher on the third day.
The first day of Tet is reserved for the nuclear family only. Family members dress up in their best clothes, gather in front of the ancestral altar according to age to offer incense and tea to their ancestors, paying respect and expressing strong attachment to the family. In the course of three days, Vietnamese people remember their ancestors through daily offerings of food and prayers. Various types of snacks (sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds, candies, biscuits, and candied fruits/vegetables) as well as splendid feasts are laid out to welcome visitors.
Children and grandchildren wish their elders health and longevity. One of the most exciting customs (for kids) is “Mừng tuổi” (happy new age), where the elders give children lucky money; it doesn’t matter if they are the visitor or the host. Vietnamese people generally only visit their relatives on the first day.
Asking-for-scripts-custom (Source: Internet)
The morning of the first day is considered the most critical time of Tet, with various customs to be followed. Choosing an auspicious time and direction to go out for the first time in the morning of the first day (Xuất hành) is very important to many people. Some still maintain the Khai Bút custom (writing for the first time), especially writers and poets. People flock to places like Văn Miếu Quốc Tử Giám (The Temple of Literature) to ask for scripts (Xin chữ) in Chinese or Vietnamese.
The second day is generally spent visiting the wife’s parents and relatives, and the third day is for visiting teachers, friends, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, etc.
Hóa Vàng (burn the offerings for ancestors) is a ritual signaling the end of Tet. Depending on the region and culture, the day of Hoa Vang can be different, but most families choose the third day, while some prolong it until the 7th day or wait for a good day.