The origins of the Lunar New Year Celebration, or the Tet holiday as it’s better known locally, dates back more than 1000 years starting in China before spreading to Vietnam and various agricultural communities across Asia. 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 second birthdays to children’s gambling games, fortune tellers, Vietnamese zodiacs, and the mysterious Kitchen God, there is much to digest. While it‘s true that Tet holiday customs take different forms from region to region, spending time with family (both the living and deceased) and ringing in the new year with good luck are at the forefront of most celebrations across the country. As the time has come to bid the fire rooster adieu and welcome in the Year of the Earth Dog, we felt it was high time to break down what all the excitement is about.
What is the Tet holiday?
Tet is short for “Tet Nguyen Dan” which literally translates as “The Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.” There are three notable 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.
Origins and history: The Kitchen God (Ong Tao)
Ancient folklore talks of The Kitchen God, a figure who to this day is still at the heart of Tet festivities. The Kitchen God is believed to watch over the family while residing in the house throughout the year. A big part of Tet is dedicated to paying homage to this god, in hopes that it will bring luck for the upcoming year. Although the legend has several different versions, the most common belief is that on the 23rd of December, this deity will return to heaven in order to give an annual report to the Jade Emperor, or the God of Heaven.Before the Kitchen God’s departure every house is thoroughly cleaned, families reunite, food is prepared, and prayers go out to ancestors in the hope of attracting the spirits back to the home to enjoy the celebration. That’s because the status of this report is believed to dictate how much luck the family will have throughout the upcoming year. The Kitchen God returns on midnight of New Year’s Eve—his trip to heaven and then back to earth takes seven days in total—and is welcomed back with a bang…literally.
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. From gift-giving to spring cleaning, cooking, and visiting friends and families, this time of year is a busy one.
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. Odd numbers and denominations are bad luck. Adults give lucky money to younger family members in exchange for the promise to study hard and behave. At the same time, the oldest members of the family also receive lucky money. This expresses a desire that the next year will bring them continued long life and good health. Red, the usual color of the envelopes, is found all over the country during the Tet holiday. The color represents fire, and fire symbolizes light, warmth, the sun, and of course, 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. But unlike the Christmas tree which is cut down, 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.
Scare away the bad spirits
The act of making lots of noise after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is actually a tradition that crosses the globe. From China to the USA, fireworks and firecrackers explode at midnight to scare away bad luck, or just to help provide a boisterous end to the year. Fireworks and loud noises are also used to express celebration, like when The Kitchen God has made its return back to earth from heaven. In Vietnam however, the public use of fireworks and firecrackers was banned in 1995 and local governments took responsibility for putting on large-scale fireworks shows.
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. Sleeping children are awoken, city dwellers race back to the countryside, and everyone comes together. 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
Food might be the most important part of the Tet holiday. Locals will prepare and present offerings to hungry ghosts, The Kitchen God, deceased ancestors, and friends and family. Although food is often the focal point, it’s important to understand that the cuisine associated with this time of year, aside from some staple dishes, varies greatly depending on the region. Whatever the dishes, traditionally, families would begin preparing their feast on the last day of the previous year. Cooking during the first three days of the new year is usually avoided if possible. And if you’re in Vietnam for the holiday, be ready to eat as consuming a large amount of food is associated with good health.
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.
Five holiday dishes to try
“Banh day” is a traditional Vietnamese cake. It’s circular, made from sticky rice, and served with Vietnamese sausage. “Hat dua”, roasted watermelon seeds, are popular snacks. For a classic main course, give “thit kho nuoc dua” a go. Essentially, it’s pork belly with boiled eggs stewed in coconut juice and fish sauce, and served with bread or white rice. If sweets are your thing, “mut” should also be on your list. It’s a mix of candied fruits which is only eaten during the Tet holiday. “Cu kieu” or “dua mon” is at every table and consists of pickled vegetables (galangal, carrots, onion, and radish) in fish sauce.
The Chinese zodiac has twelve-year cycles and 2018 is the eleventh year out of the twelve. That means if you were born during 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, or 2018 this year will bring you good luck. For everyone though, this is the year of action so be ready to work hard. And generally, financially speaking, the Year of the Dog is said to be a prosperous one.
The Chinese zodiac also takes into account the five elements (metal, wood, fire, earth, and water) making 2018 the Year of the Earth Dog. Earth dogs do not inherit much wealth from their ancestors which means it’s a time to get out there and make some money. If you’re a procrastinator, it’s safe to say that this is the year to change your habits. According to the Chinese zodiac, we’re all going to be very busy in 2018, so taking particular care of your health is advised no matter what your sign is.
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 businesses owners about when to reopen. Unlike the West, there is deep consideration given to how and when to kick off your new year, although some might claim this is mere superstition. In order 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. In order to avoid acquiring bad luck, most families will choose a successful person to invite to their homes first. This individual should be level-headed, of strong moral values, and 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 are allowed to 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 just 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 as well.
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 members of the house, 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 is symbolic of bad luck.