Year of the Horse

By C.N. Le, Asian-Nation


Nature, Family, and Renewal

Têt Nguyen Dan literally means the first morning of the first day of the new period. More simply known as “Têt,” it is Viet Nam’s version of the Lunar New Year and is celebrated by millions of Vietnamese all around the world. Têt is normally the biggest and most important holiday in Vietnamese culture, almost like New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one. It is based on history but has also evolved into a modern celebration that incorporates new elements to produce new traditions.

Even though many Vietnamese traditions are based on old cultural beliefs that may strike some as a little superstitious, families believe that their activities during Têt must involve happiness, joy, and good luck. That’s why even before the beginning of Têt, it’s customary for families to prepare by cleaning and even painting their homes in anticipation of spring, settle old debts and disputes, and pledge to behave nicely and work hard in the new year. People also traditionally buy new clothes to usher in the new year.

Paying homage to one’s ancestors is another important component of Têt as families pray at temples, churches, and pagodas. They will also visit the grave sites of their deceased relatives and construct altars in their homes containing photographs of their ancestors, then offering them symbolic gifts in the form of food, flowers, and incense. The night before the new year, families perform a ritual where incense sticks are burned, inviting the spirits of their ancestors to join them in celebration. This is also a time to bid farewell to the family’s Kitchen God (Ong Tao), who then returns to heaven to report on the family’s behavior in the past year to the Jade Emperor.

Houses are also decorated with several things, such as a Cay Neu, a small bamboo tree planted in the front of the house; Hoa Mai, a yellow blossom that represents spring; and red banners on the front door, as it’s believed that red wards off evil spirits, preventing them from entering the house. Adults also give fancy red envelopes to children full of Li Xi or “lucky money,” always in even denominations since odd numbers are considered bad luck. Not too surprisingly, this was always my favorite part of Têt when I was growing up.

For the upcoming year, most astrologers predict good fortune for those born in the years of the Dog and Tiger. Those born under the Rooster, Rat, and Cat/Rabbit may find this new year rather challenging.

Traditional celebrations can last anywhere from a day, when public parades and traditional dances are performed, to an entire week. When it’s time for Le Tru Tich, the official start of Têt, people fill the streets in celebration of the new year and try to make as much noise as possible using anything from firecrackers (although they are now illegal in Viet Nam), drums, bells, gongs, to simple wooden instruments to ward off evil spirits. It’s also critical that the first person who visits a family’s house in the new year be someone who has enjoyed good luck during the previous year, as it’s believed that his/her karma can also influence the family’s fortune in the upcoming year.

There will often be a parade where people wear all kinds of scary-looking masks and dancers mimic the Mua Lan, who is frequently referred to as a unicorn but looks more like a cross between a lion and a dragon, and who is the traditional symbol of strength in Vietnamese culture —  all to scare away evil spirits. Later, families and friends will gather for a generous feast full of traditional Vietnamese dishes such as mut (candied fruit), banh day and banh chung (steamed sticky rice cake with pork stuffing wrapped in banana leaves), keo dua (coconut candy), and keo me xung (peanut brittle with sesame seeds).


Different Flavors and New Traditions

The Lunar Year holiday was originally brought to Viet Nam by the Chinese, Viet Nam’s traditional nemesis for almost 2,000 years.  In times when the Chinese ruled Viet Nam, they also brought with them their own policies, culture, and traditions. The Lunar New Year was passed to the Vietnamese people and has stayed relatively intact through the centuries, despite uneasy and often hostile relations between the two countries. Nonetheless, one of the differences between the two traditions concerns the Lunar calendar itself.

Along with many other Asian countries, both the Chinese and the Vietnamese recognize the Lunar calendar as part of their cultural tradition. It’s a calendar that incorporates a zodiac of twelve animals in rotation. As a new lunar new year begins, the “year” of a new animal also begins. On February 12, 2002, we will start the Year of the Horse. The main difference between the Chinese and Vietnamese lunar calendars is that the Vietnamese replace the Ox, Rabbit, and Sheep in the Chinese calendar with the Buffalo, Cat, and Goat, respectively. For this upcoming year, most astrologers predict good fortune for those born in the years of the Dog and Tiger, while those born under the years of the Rooster, Rat, and Dragon may find this new year rather challenging.

In Orange County, CA, home to almost half of the Vietnamese in the U.S., Têt festival planning has passed from the Vietnamese Community of Southern California to the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations

In modern times, as Vietnamese communities are developing all over the world, Têt celebrations themselves have reflected this evolution by incorporating different elements from their new social and cultural environments. For example, in many U.S. cities, with Chicago as one recent example, the Vietnamese community have celebrated Têt with other southeast Asian communities such as Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong, separate from the Chinese New Year celebrations organized by the city’s Chinese community.

Other communities have broadened the appeal of Têt to encourage non-Asian Americans to attend celebrations and festivals. These days it’s common to find games, crafts, and activities designed just for children at Têt festivals. In addition, many Têt festivals have expanded to include art and photography exhibits, information booths from local businesses and community organizations, and stalls offering various health and wellness treatments, in addition to the traditional dance performances, musical entertainment, and ethnic food.

The organization of Têt celebrations is undergoing change as well.  In Orange County, California, home to almost half of the Vietnamese community in the U.S., annual Têt festivals have historically been organized by the Vietnamese Community of Southern California (VCSC). But due to recent political infighting over leadership and disputes over finances within the VCSC, the city council of Garden Grove recently granted permission to hold the annual Têt festival to the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (UVSA), an umbrella group of Vietnamese student associations that has successfully hosted other Têt festivals for 20 years.

The Garden Grove city council felt that the UVSA had a better history of making larger profits from their festivals, some of which would then be redistributed to local charities, and that the student group was able to fully account for all their finances, a requirement that the older VCSC could not fulfill. Leaders of the student group credit their political activism on their respective college campuses for their skills and abilities to organize successful festivals.

If the torch is indeed being passed, it’s clear that it’s going into very capable hands. In fact, it seems quite appropriate for Têt — a celebration of birth and renewal and the evolution of an international Vietnamese identity that continues a long and proud tradition for Vietnamese all around the world.

Chuc mung nam moi!


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