Tet is short for “Tet Nguyen Dan,” which translates as “The Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.” There are three significant components to this date: it marks the beginning of the New Lunar Year, the start of spring, and the official birthday of everyone in Vietnam.
Tet is Vietnam’s biggest celebration and the festivities go beyond the country’s territory. The massive population of overseas Vietnamese across the globe also joins the yearly occasion. However, this year is slightly different from the rest of the world’s – Vietnam is ringing in the year of the cat, not the rabbit.
The Cat is the 4th animal symbol in the 12-year cycle of the Vietnamese zodiac, taking the place of the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac. In Vietnamese culture, the year of the cat is said to bring attentiveness, compassion, and sensitivity.
While no one knows exactly why Vietnam includes cat and not rabbit, there are a few theories in the books and among communities.
One of the most popular beliefs is the similar pronunciation of rabbit and cat in both Vietnamese and Chinese – the ancient word for rabbit, “mao” sounds like a cat’s meow sound, and the Vietnamese word for cat (meo) is also similar to mao. Another theory is that cat fits better in the zodiac, according to Vietnamese feng shui, as it has cultural relationships with other animals, such as the rat, dog, or tiger.
A deeper explanation involves hour representation according to the Eastern calendar. In Chinese characters, the rabbit is the fourth can chi, corresponding to the 5 - 7 am division time.
Because of this, many researchers believe the rabbit hour corresponds to the schedule of the animals' return to activity after a night of deep sleep. Rabbits are the most agile during this time, taking advantage of the youngest grass and avoiding the capture of nocturnal animals. Therefore, the Chinese take the image of a rabbit to represent the hour of the rabbit, and the fourth can chi, accordingly, is the image of a rabbit.
However, rabbits are not familiar animals for the Vietnamese, mainly because Vietnam is not as cold as China. Instead, after a night of catching mice, the cat will return to its lazy and graceful appearance, integrating into the surrounding life.
The folk superstition also holds that cats have “two directions of the soul” – at night, they belong to the underworld, and during the day, they will return to the yang realm.
Traditionally, this time of year was one of the few extended breaks between harvest and the next crop rotation — the perfect time for a celebration. And although it is the most popular holiday celebration in Vietnam, much of its rich history remains unknown.
From the mysterious Kitchen God to which food is best for Tet, there is much to digest. As the time has come to bid the water tiger farewell and welcome in the Year of the Water Cat, we felt it was high time to break down what all the excitement is about.
Origins and history: The Kitchen God
Besides the wearing of ao dai and giving out lucky money, Tet is about commemorating the tradition. And one important custom Vietnamese religious practice is Kitchen God Day or Tết Táo Quân. It may not be as familiar or as big as Tết, but the observance of Tết Táo Quân is just as significant to the Vietnamese culture.
Tết Táo Quân is a tale of three people — Trong Cao, the husband; Thi Nhi, the wife; and Pham Lang, the second husband — who turned into gods after they all died tragically for love. There are different versions of the legend, but each consistently depicts a story of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Sending out a message that if you follow a life of honesty and goodness, the heavens will shower rewards. Or turn you into a god.
In the present day, Vietnamese religious believe that every 23rd day of December in the Lunar New Year (January 25, 2022), the three gods would travel up to the heavens to relay information to the Jade Emperor and pray for prosperity in the coming year. They also believe that Cao, Nhi, and Lang return to Earth on New Year’s Eve to continue their duties for the rest of the year.
Vietnamese believe the Kitchen Gods’ report to the Jade Emperor will determine their fate in the coming year.
Tet holiday customs and celebrations
The Tet holiday is all about starting afresh, forgetting about the past, and settling your debts and disputes. Just like the western new year, the aim is to set the tone, and there are many ways to do that in Vietnam. This time of year, from gift-giving to spring cleaning, cooking, and visiting friends and families, is busy.
If you’re in Vietnam around this time of year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter “lucky money,” or “li xi” as spoken in the south—in the north, it’s called “tien mung tuoi.” Instead of stockings stuffed with candy, kids are given red envelopes containing cash which is always offered as an even number of notes. The color represents fire, and fire symbolizes light, warmth, sun, and good luck.
“Cay neu” is similar to a Christmas tree in many ways, and like Christmas trees there are many ways to decorate them depending on the region and religion. Vietnamese families would traditionally buy an extremely long bamboo tree and plant it outside their homes during the days leading up to the new year. Once planted, families will join together to decorate the tree with lucky red paper and “li xi” envelopes, gongs, bows, and bells.
In addition to luck, red also wards off lurking evil spirits, especially during the seven-day absence of the Kitchen God. The removal of the tree also serves as an important ceremony marking the end of Tet. This happens after the seventh day of the Tet holiday.
The three-period timeline
There are three primary periods that the Vietnamese organize their Tet holiday activities around. The first period is referred to as “tat nien.” This includes the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. Traditionally, this time is reserved specifically for family reunions, cooking, and making preparations for upcoming celebrations.
New Year’s Eve, the most sacred time of the year for many, is called “giao thua.” Midnight marks the time that “Ong Tao” (The Kitchen God) returns from the heavens. Therefore, the good deeds done over the preceding few days were all in preparation for this moment. Midnight is also the time to begin praying and lighting incense in the hope that the ancestors will accept the families invitation to enjoy the party. Being present at your family home at midnight is of the utmost importance. The bigger the celebration, the happier the ancestors will be, and the more likely they are to return.
Once midnight has struck “tan nien” officially kicks off. Simply put, “tan nien” is the time that starts at midnight on new year. Typically, the next three days call for a serious celebration, although for some, the party even extends to seven days. The first day of the new year is set aside for visiting the nuclear family, starting with the husband’s side. Day two brings a visit to the wife’s family and friends. Locals refer to the tradition of visiting family and friends as “xong nha.” The third official day is a time to show respect towards teachers.
The importance of food
Legend claims “banh chung” or “banh tet,” one of the staples of Tet holiday cuisine, was invented over 2000 years ago by a man named Lang Lieu during the reign of the Hung Dynasty. In search of an heir to the throne, the King held a competition to see who could honor his ancestors through cooking. In order to win, Lang Lieu decided to create his own recipe. Once the King tried his new dish the boy was declared Prince. Today, “banh tet” or “banh chung” is made with sticky rice cake, mung beans, and pork.
Four things you may not know about the Tet holiday
Every person in Vietnam shares the same birthday, and it’s celebrated after midnight on New Year’s Eve. So for the Vietnamese community, your age technically doesn’t change on the day you were born. It changes during the Tet holiday. Another interesting fact about age in Vietnam is that when you’re first born, you’re already considered one year old, as the time spent in the womb counts.
Fortune tellers advise business owners about when to reopen. Unlike the West, deep consideration is given to how and when to kick off your new year, although some might claim this is mere superstition. To optimize good luck, it’s not uncommon to refer to a fortune teller to assist in finding the perfect day to reopen a business in the new year.
The karma of your first visitor becomes your own. This is a widespread belief in Vietnam, and it is taken very seriously. Most families will choose a successful person to invite to their homes first to avoid acquiring bad luck. This individual should be level-headed, have strong moral values, and be a prominent social figure. This is why you should never enter a house on the first day of the year without being invited in.
Children can gamble with their lucky money. Although gambling is illegal in Vietnam, kids can play games with their lucky money during the Tet holiday. One popular game is called “bau cua ca cop” or “bau cua tom ca.” Kids play it using six dice and a game board, giving their new year’s luck a quick test.
Things you should do during Tet
- Free an animal. You can head to your local temple, where they sell birds for this purpose.
- Smile as much as possible. It’s the simplest way to bring joy to others and kick off your new year the right way.
- Go shopping. That’s something we’re not told often, so why not take advantage of the situation? In Vietnam, both young and old head out to get new shoes, new clothes, and usually a haircut.
- Give gifts or lucky money. The Tet holiday is pretty much like Christmas in terms of gift-giving. Being generous pays off during this time of year.
Things you should not do during Tet
- Don’t fight during the Tet holiday, especially around midnight on New Year’s Eve. Arguments could attract bad spirits into the house.
- Don’t sweep or take out the trash on the first day. This symbolizes the literal sweeping out of good luck and fortune.
- Don’t enter a house without being invited. There is a widespread superstition that your karma could affect the house members, especially if you’re the first visitor of the year. Make sure to ask before you enter just to be safe.
- Don’t wear black or white. These colors are traditionally reserved for funerals, and many think wearing these colors during the Tet holiday symbolizes bad luck.