So what was that all about?
Qumquat trees and peach blossom
Now that I’ve lived through Tet in Vietnam (which I earlier described as being like Christmas, New Year and your birthday all rolled into one) I suppose I ought to give some idea as to what the whole shebang was all about. Thankfully, Mai Huong writing for Pathfinder magazine has given a good summation of the event. All that follows is none of my own research – thankfully!
Preparations for Tet begin on December 23rd (lunar calendar), a time when people send the Ong Cong (land genie) and Ong Tao (kitchen god) off to heaven. As legend has it, the kitchen god and the land genie go to heaven to report to the Jade Emporer (Ngoc Hoang) on the household. Both gods then return to earth to welcome in the New Year and continue their duty to look after the kitchen. When the kitchen god has gone some families set up a Tet tree outside of the house on the day before New Year’s Eve. It is called Cay Neu, and is a bamboo pole stripped of its leaves except for a tuft on top. Tradition has it that this wards off evil spirits.
The most sacred place in the house is the altar, where the five-fruit tray (Mam ngu qua) is placed. It symbolises the admiration and gratitude of the Vietnamese to heaven and earth and their ancestors. It also demonstrates their aspirations for a plentiful life. The five fruits are symbols of the five basic elements of classical oriental philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
It is also very important for the house to be clean, yet on the Lunar New Year’s Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and cleaning equipment are hidden away. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year’s Day and the following two days for fear that good fortune will be swept away with the rubbish. After the first three days, the floors may be swept in a special routine. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlour, then collected in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day.
Flowers are also prominent in the home. Visiting flower shops, contemplating the buds and the blooms, and purchasing blossoms represents one of the distinct Vietnamese cultural characteristics. The peach and the apricot blossoms are the most popular symbols of the Vietnamese Tet, yet choosing one or the other depends on where you are in the country. The warm pink of the peach is said to resemble the dry cold of northern Vietnam, while the yellow of the apricot represents the south.
The food that we eat at Tet is varied and diverse, yet all Vietnamese want to have the best and most beautiful looking food in order to please their ancestors and treat their friends. Usually what is on the menu depends on the tradition of each region, but Banh chung (sticky rice cake) is essential and is readily available from shops and markets. Besides sticky rice cake, meat fat and pickled onions are indispensable for all the Vietnamese family. The greenness of the sticky rice, the fatness of the pork and the sourness of onions are all distinct Tet tastes.
While Tet might only last three days, the ripple effect of the Tet celebrations, from the close and intimate family gatherings to the sense of giving in the neighbourhood community, lasts throughout the year.
This year, my mother and I have cut costs in our Tet preparations, to support the Quy Vi Nguoi Ngheo (a charity fund to help the poor) which helps eradicate hunger and alleviates poverty in Vietnam. This is the spirit of Tet.
It’s importance in our social calendar is shown by the vast numbers of Viet Kieu (Vietnamese overseas) who make the long pilgrimage back to Vietnam every year. It is a time when, wherever the Vietnamese community is, people feel a kindred spirit and togetherness. It is a time when our people knit.
Handbag and sandals