Tết and the Meaning of Tết
Although Tet is traditionally a 3-day celebration starting on the eve of the New Year (dates are based on the Lunar Calendar), it actually involves preparations in the week(s) prior. Houses are cleaned, decorated, or even repainted; new clothes are bought; debts are paid off; and disputes are sorted out. Starting on the December 23rd of the Lunar Calendar, Têt Táo Quân/Tết Ông Công – Ông Táo or Kitchen God Worship Day, the atmosphere becomes festive and jolly when everyone rushes to prepare for the ritual and Tết.
A reenactment of the Tet celebration in the past (Source: Internet)
Tết Nguyên Ðán or Tết for short, is the first, most celebrated, and most important festival of the year, hence the name Tết Cả (Biggest Festival). The name Tết Nguyên Ðán is Sino-Vietnamese, derived from the Hán nôm characters 節元旦, which literally means the First Morning of the Year.
- 節(jié) means festival or season, showing the relationship between humans and nature, of which the economy is still heavily dependent on agriculture.
- 元(yuán) means the beginning, initial, marking the arrival of spring.
- 旦(dàn) means daybreak, dawn, morning (the character itself indicates that the sun (日) has just peeked the horizon (_).
Tết is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions, which is why many people prefer to call it Tết Ðoàn Viên (Reunion Festival). Everyone looks forward to coming back home before Tet to reunite and celebrate together with their beloved families. Those who can’t or don’t have a festive home to return to are considered unfortunate and the nostalgia gets amplified tenfold.
Superstitions in the New Year
According to indigenous Vietnamese beliefs, one’s luck in the upcoming year can be determined by auspicious and ominous events in the first few days, especially on the first morning of the New Year. Thus, Vietnamese people try their best to avoid doing and saying things that are believed to bring bad luck (giông/xui, or taboos).
- Make peace, not war! Avoid foul language, arguments, or shouting at one another.
- Do not mention negative topics: death, accidents, etc.
- Do not let children cry. Children are exceptionally tolerated in the duration of Tet.
- Do not break anything: bowls, dishes, cups, glasses, mirrors, etc. Broken things signify separations and break-ups.
- Do not give away fire/water or let water/rice run out. Fire is red, which is the color of luck while an urn of water symbolizes fortune and bounty. Running out of rice could be an ominous sign of a failed crop.
- Do not wear black or white clothes. These two colors symbolize mourning, bad luck and death, and are traditionally worn at funerals. Particularly, do not ever visit someone’s house wearing funeral attire. Buy new clothes with colorful bright colors like red, yellow, or blue instead. These colors are believed to bring good luck and prosperity.
- Do not lend/borrow money and things or pay back a debt, or you will be borrowing money and paying your debts for the rest of the year. Do it before the New Year or at least after the 15th day of Lunar January.
- Do not kill or hurt animals, set them free instead. Since a boiled chicken (preferably a cockerel) is considered a must in every tribute meal to the ancestors, it should be prepared and preserved beforehand.
- Do not be the first person entering someone’s house (xông nhà/xông đất or first-footing) or the first caller unless the homeowner specially invites you. The first person to enter one’s house is believed to be able to bring luck or misfortune. Hence, the selected first-footer (mostly male) must have a zodiac sign that is compatible with the host’s, and it should be someone successful and moral in life who has long-lived parents. If you’re having bad luck or have a family member who just passed away, it’s advisable to not visit someone else’s house in the first day.
- Do not sweep the house or empty the rubbish bin or you will throw away luck and fortune.
- Do not eat or give others unlucky foods: squid (black ink), shrimps (swimming backwards), duck meat (separations), fermented shrimp paste (smelly), dog meat (simply unlucky), etc.
A broken glass is an ominous sign (Source: Internet)
Essential Foods of Tet Holiday
The list of Tet dishes includes tribute meals to the ancestors; generous feasts for family, friends, and colleague gatherings; and snacks for any visitors, especially kids. The most important thing to remember when preparing a tribute meal is that it’s extremely disrespectful and an absolute no-no to taste the offering food before the ritual is over/the incense sticks burn out (when the ancestors have already finished their meal).
Bánh Chưng – Chưng Cake
There is a famous pair of parallel sentences in Vietnamese sketching a lively and colorful picture of the traditional Tết:
“Thịt mỡ, dưa hành, câu đối đỏ,
Cây Nêu, tràng pháo, bánh chưng xanh.”
“Pork fat, pickled onions, red parallel sentences,
New Year’s tree, firecrackers, green Chung cakes.”
A painting of a Vietnamese Tet Market in the Past (Source: Internet)
Tet traditions adapt to changing times but the spirit remains more or less the same. Urbanization, busyness, improved quality of life, changing lifestyles, and many other factors result in some of these traditions having faded or gotten lost along the way:
- Tet feasts now exude luxury and wealth. Pork fat and pickled onions have become more of an option than a must-have.
- Very few families still maintain the traditions of having red parallel sentences hung on the walls or the New Year’s tree planted in the yard.
- Firecrackers have been banned by the Government since 1997 due to safety issues, so big cities will launch fireworks in public instead.
Generation after generation, Chung cakes have remained irreplaceable and indispensable. They’re the soul of Tet. Chung cakes and Day cakes were both invented by Lang Lieu, the 18th prince of Hung Emperor. Chung cakes (square-shaped) represent the Earth, and Day cakes (round) represent the sky. Lang Lieu was then selected to be the next King. Vietnamese people make Chung cakes on the occasion of Tet to honor him and show gratitude to their ancestors.
Chung cakes in the works (Source: Internet)
These days, many families buy ready-made Tet traditional dishes instead of making them, including Chung cakes. However, making Chung cakes with family is one of the most beautiful childhood memories one carries with them for the rest of their life. Nevertheless, most families in the countryside still maintain the custom.
When making Chung cakes, each family member has their own role, from washing Dong leaves and all the ingredients (pork, green beans, sticky rice, etc.) to splitting bamboo strings, seasoning the pork with condiments and wrapping the cakes neatly in a square shape. Children get to have their own tiny Chung cakes customized into a cylindrical shape (Bánh Tét) to show their friends. Everyone gathers together around the evaporating pot of Chung cakes to chat and enjoy each other’s company while they wait for the cakes to be fully cooked (10-12 hours). The good old days…
Boiling Chung cakes (Source: Internet)
A whole boiled chicken
Boiled chickens (whole) are the mainstay of all tribute meals to the ancestors in Vietnam, along with steamed sticky rice (representing prosperity and a life of plenty, using mostly baby jackfruit flavored sticky rice). Making offerings of chickens has become a culture code associated with the religion of worshipping the Sun of agricultural societies. The chickens used for ritual sacrifices have to be perfectly boiled and placed as a whole on a plate with a red rose in between their beaks.
Boiled Chickens for Sale (Source: Internet)
According to Vietnamese mythology, when the Jade Emperor created the Earth, it was very wet and cold. The Jade Emperor used 10 Suns to dry out the Earth. When the Earth was all dried, he forgot to retreat the Suns, which resulted in humans, animals, and plants to suffer from a serious drought. An archer saw that and shot down 9 out of the 10 Suns. The last one was so petrified that he flew off and never came back. Once again, the Earth was covered in complete darkness. Therefore, all the living things gathered together to call the Sun but no one could, except for a strong rooster. His crows triggered the Sun’s curiosity so he descended down to see, shining down upon the Earth.
There is a Vietnamese saying: “Tối như đêm 30”, which literally means, “as dark as New Year’s Eve”. They believe that this is when the Sun hides the furthest away. Thus, Vietnamese people make offerings of chickens in hopes that they will wake the Sun up and that there will be enough sunlight in the upcoming year. The chicken offering on New Year’s Eve must be a cockerel (symbolizing strength and purity). The red rose in its beak is a symbolic image of the cockerel calling the Sun on the first day of the year, representing luck. During the ritual, the cockerel is situated facing the front doors, in the hope that luck will shine upon the family.
Five virtues of a cockerel:
- Literal ability – Its crest resembles an ancient mandarin’s hat.
- Ferocity and courage – Its spurs and beak are powerful weapons in fighting.
- Bravery – It protects its flock of hens and chicks.
- Benevolence – It never eats alone and always calls out to its flock.
- Faithfulness – It crows to the Sun every morning.
Telling fortune by chicken feet is a very unique and popular custom in Vietnam. As a rule of thumb, nice yellow feet with clustered claws are a good sign, and will be hung on the kitchen’s roof till next New Year’s Eve.
Tet is the occasion for reunions and gathering, so it’s understandable if guests keep coming at any time of the day. It’s a courteous tradition for Vietnamese families to always have a rotatable tray with different types of colorful snacks on the living room coffee table ready for serving. Depending on each family’s financial situation and preference, snacks can be candies, biscuits, fruits, nuts, or seeds.
Tet Candied Fruits (Source: Internet)
There is more to a tray of snacks than there appears to be. Everything is neatly displayed, representing the hope of a happy reunion. Each tray should comprise candied tangerine, ginger, apple, and peanuts, representing all the different flavors of life and the 4 seasons of a year.
In the past, each family would make their own candied fruits with each type having a meaning held to it. The image of families preparing sugar syrup isn’t any less boisterous than making Chung cakes. Nowadays, the market is overwhelmed with industrially made candied fruits. However, traditional candied fruits still win people’s hearts, not only by their certified quality but also their cultural values.
Candied Fruits are Best Served with Hot Tea (Source: Internet)
- Candied coconut ribbons – Happy reunions. Candied coconut is fun to eat as it often has diverse shapes and colors. Everyone spends quality time with one another, strengthening their bond while enjoying the fragrant and tasty candied coconut of different shapes with tea.
- Candied ginger – Coziness and happiness. Candied ginger has a robust, mildly spicy and sweet taste, symbolizing a cozy life. It also warms up the body, stimulates the digestive system, eliminates toxins, as well as reduces and cures vomiting caused by irregular eating habits.
- Roasted red watermelon seeds – Luck and joy. Red is a lucky color while watermelon seeds are like little sources of interest and joy. Once you crack open the hard shells, there is only the best flavor and nutrition left.
- Peanuts/candied peanuts – Longevity and plenty of health. Peanuts are rich in energy, nutrients, and minerals. They also contain lots of antioxidants (especially in their skin).
- Candied pumpkin/roasted pumpkin seeds – Health and growth. Pumpkins possess a ton of health benefits including offering health-boosting antioxidants, reducing inflammation, normalizing blood pressure levels, and protecting the heart and aorta.
- Candied tangerine – Prosperity (yellow/golden). Tangerines served with hot tea helps warm up the body, get rid of a bad cough, stimulate the digestive system, and promote your appetite.
- Sweet candies wrapped in colorful paper – A year full of sweetness and love.
Learn more about Vietnamese culture here: