Tet: the forgotten Vietnamese new year

Chuc mung nam moi!

Photo courtesy of Flickr

The entire house is pungent with the sweet smell of incense, while every square inch of the dinner table is covered with traditional dishes. 

Tempted by the appealing sight, I stealthily sneak a piece of cha gio (spring rolls) from the altar - priding myself in thinking that no one was around to catch me. I didn't fool my mother, however. "Those are for your ancestors!" she would admonish while wagging her finger disapprovingly.   

For me, early memories of Tet will always be associated with visions of bright yellow hoa mai branches (ochna integerrima) adorned with li xi (lucky money), along with the blissful sounds of Vietnamese music blaring in the background. 

Photo courtesy of City Net Events

Tet is one of the most beloved and celebrated holidays in the Vietnamese culture. In a sense, it's like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined into one. 

Centered around family, it's unsurprising that feelings of nostalgia are especially prevalent during this time. In fact, many Vietnamese people tend to travel back to their homeland during Tet to reunite with their loved ones. 

A merry and joyous occasion, it can be seen as one of the defining traditions that embody Vietnam's cultural identity.

Much of the festivities last for three days and are marked by two significant periods: Tat Nien (Before New Year's Eve) and Giao Thua (New Year's Eve).

On Tat Nien, families would visit their elders' home and exchange common phrases such as, "Van su nhu y" (Wishing you good health) or "An khang thing vuong" (Wishing you happiness and prosperity).

During this time, grandparents distribute li xi which, for children, is certainly one of the most anticipated and exciting moments. Before handing out the envelopes, elders offer words of wisdom, encouraging children to do well in school as well as to obey their parents. 

Photo courtesy of Saigon Stay Wordpress

On the day of Giao Thua, families gather together to pay respect to their ancestors. During this time, it is believed that deceased relatives will visit the family. Altars, then, are cleaned and decorated with flowers, while photographs of the deceased are displayed.

Trays of fruit and traditional food such as banh chung (steamed square cake) are placed in front of the altar and each family member takes turns burning incense.

Following this afternoon ritual, families gather together to enjoy a feast complete with extravagant dishes. And of course, who can forget sweets such as mut (candied fruits) and hat sen (lotus seeds)?

For Vietnamese people, Tet is the time to forget about the troubles of the past and embrace the start of the new year. It generates a sense of closeness among family members, who are instilled with great expectations and hope for the new year.

Perhaps my ignorance took the best of me, since I never understood until now that family is the holiday's central and binding element.

When I was younger, the anticipation surrounding Tet was deeply rooted in its superficial aspects: the excitement of receiving money and indulging in food for three straight days.

It seemed momentous and extravagant back then: guests were always present and the festive atmosphere instilled a sense of harmony and togetherness, unlike any other day of the year.

As I got older, the number of guests started to diminish and Tet would only be spent with my family. The celebration became much quieter and I became indifferent to it. Its joyous spirit seemed to fade along with the naivete of my younger self. 

I realize now (maybe a little too late) that spending time with loved ones is the essential focus of the holiday. Red envelopes have become only a miniscule part of the tradition, while it is family that remains the most important. 

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