Tet Nguyen Dan, often referred to simply as Tet is the Vietnamese lunar New Year. The New Year does not fall on the same date each year, although it is always in January or February. There are similar celebrations in China, Japan and Korea known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival.
The holiday in Vietnam is officially three days, but is often celebrated for seven. This is regarded as one of the most important Vietnamese holidays. Tet Nguyen Dan literally means the first morning of the first day of the new period. It is believed that the course of these few days will determine the path of the coming year. People stop their quarreling, children vow to behave, and families make special efforts to gather together.
Prior to the celebrations homes are cleaned and painted. Cleaning during Tet is avoided so the good luck will not be “swept away”. New clothes are purchased and old debts are paid. People go to church or the pagoda and offerings are made to the Kitchen God.
Kumquat trees are brought into the home. These trees represent the family and the hope of good fortune in the new year. Trees are selected with care to insure the leaves are healthy and that there is ripe fruit as well as green fruit ready to ripen.
Homes are also decorated with the yellow blossoms of the Hoa Mai in the south, while the rosy peach blossoms of the Hoa Dao are used in the North. The blossoms represent the spirit of Tet. They symbolizes prosperity and well-being for the family. It is believed that the longer the blossoms last the more prosperous the family will be in the coming year.
During this time the Kitchen God departs the home to report on the family. To help protect the home during the absence of the Kitchen God families erect a Cay Neu, a “New Years’ Tree”. A bamboo pole is planted in front of the home, all the leaves are removed (except a few at the top), and the tree is decorated with red paper. Red has long been associated with warding off evil spirits. The Cay Neu is taken down on the seventh day of Tet.
Deceased relatives are remembered during Tet. Families build alters with photographs, flowers, incense, money, and food. People also visit the grave sites of their deceased loved ones.
At midnight on the New Years’ Eve, Le Tru Tich is held. The spirits of the old year are rushed out and the new spirits are welcomed. The streets are chaotic with everyone banging gongs and sounding off noisemakers to scare evil spirits away. Prior to 1995 firecrackers were set off by almost everyone, but in 1995 the government banned fireworks because the cost was financially prohibitive and the injury rate was soaring, 71 people were killed in 1994.
The first person to enter the home after the start of the New Year sets the precedence for the coming year. Many people will arrange to have a child or someone well-off enter the home minutes after the start of the New Year.
Food is enjoyed throughout the holiday. Banh chung, a rice cake made of rice, peas and pork and covered with three layers of banana leaves is served. This cake symbolized the bond between the people and their environment. The green banana leaves represents the sky and the rice cake represents the earth.
Another belief is that the redder the flesh of a cut watermelon the more luck the family will have in the New Year.
In the United States women will often wear the colors of the Vietnamese flag, red and yellow, and men will wear black.
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