Traditions of Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet Nguyen Dan)
Tết Nguyên Đán, or simply Tết, is the most celebrated and important holiday in Vietnam.
Tết rites begin with Ong Tao, one of a group of omniscient kitchen gods named Táo Quân, hand-delivering a report to the Jade Emperor in Heaven about affairs in the family home.
It is widely believed that this report affects family destiny or extends or shortens life spans according to actions over the course of the previous year. Ông Táo’s report keeps him in Heaven for six days until he returns home in the night between the old and the new year. Most merchants close during Tết celebrations, so people try to stock up on supplies, food, clothing and home decorations. The streets and markets are crowded with people in the days before Tết and then deserted during the festivities.
Tết takes place on the first day of the first lunar month (late January/early February), a special day when the souls of ancestors return to earth "2021 is the year of the Ox". The lunar calendar years are named after animals: rat, ox, tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
The first day of Tết is reserved to the core of the family. Children receive a red envelope called lì xì (or 'lucky money') containing money from their elders. To bring good luck, cash bills must be new and free from bends or rips. As for adults, it is customary to offer various gifts of wine, biscuits, sweets or jam.
Vietnamese families usually have a family altar to honour their ancestors. Upon this they will place a tray of five different fruits called mâm ngũ quả. During Tết, the altar is cleaned and new offerings are placed. As Tết is the time to welcome family ancestors, one’s house must be thoroughly cleaned to make it as welcoming as possible.
When welcoming visitors on Tết, vigilance is essential. It is believed that the first person to visit one’s home on Tết will bring either good or bad luck to a family for the following year. Thus, a rich and respected visitor would bring happiness and good fortune while the converse is also true.
Home decoration is an important part of Tết festivities. The house is believed to be protected against evil spirits by a kumquat tree, which symbolises fertility. In the north part of the country a branch of pink peach flowers called hoa đào is displayed. In central and southern regions branches of golden apricot blossoms (hoa mai) are used. Bright colours are worn to attract good luck in the coming year.
During Tết special food is served, each with its own characteristics such as luck, prosperity, health or longevity. (Incidentally, before the advent of electric rice cookers, it was considered a bad omen for the coming year if rice was burned at the bottom of the pan.)
Bánh chưng is a square, steamed cake, an indispensable dish of Tết. It was invented during the Hùng King Dynasty and is rectangular to symbolize the Earth. This cake is made from glutinous rice, mung beans and pork, and wrapped in banana leaves. All families place bánh chưng on their ancestral altar as an offering.
Bánh dầy, with its circular base of glutinous rice, symbolises Heaven. With these two cakes, bánh chưng and bánh dầy, Vietnamese pay homage to ancestors and Heaven and Earth.
Boiled or steamed chicken plays an important role during Tet meals. Indeed, all meals that pay tribute to ancestors must indeed contain a boiled chicken. The chicken is served with sticky rice and bánh chưng.
Xôi is glutinous rice of several types. Xôi gấc is one such type that is preferred by many Vietnamese for its red colour – red symbolises luck. This sticky rice is usually served with cooked chicken.
Mứt is candied fruit and Mứt Tết is a Vietnamese jam served with tea. This jam, in its dry form, is always kept in beautiful boxes and placed on the table when serving tea.
Finally, during Tết, Vietnamese stay polite and smiling, under the watchful eyes of three statues (Phúc, Lộc and Thọ) representing happiness, prosperity and longevity.
The main greeting at Tet is, ‘Chúc mừng năm mới’, which translates to ‘Happy New Year’.