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Dec 22, 2014

Meaning of Vietnamese New Year in Vietnamese New Year

The festival which best epitomizes Vietnam’s cultural identity is Vietnamese New Year or Tet. Popular festivals play a major role as mirror and guardian of a nation’s cultural identity. In this aspect, the festival which best epitomizes Vietnam’s cultural identity is Tet.


Although endowed with honorable credentials, the New Year by Solar Calendar has not succeeded in becoming accredited in Vietnam, at least not in the countryside. People pay it polite homage countryside but reserve their heart and soul for their own traditional Vietnamese New Year.
“Tet” is a word of Chinese Origin. It is the phonetic deformation of “Tiet”, a Sino Vietnamese term which means “Joint of a bamboo stern” and in a wider sense, the “beginning of a period of the year”. The passage from one period to the next may cause a meteorological disturbance (heat, rain, mist) that must be exercised by ritual sacrifices and festivities. Thus, there are many Tets throughout the year (Mid-autumn Vietnamese New Year, Cold Food Vietnamese New Year, etc.). The most significant of all is “Vietnamese New Year Ca” (“Big Vietnamese New Year” or simply “Vietnamese New Year”), which marks the Lunar New Year.

Vietnamese New Year occurs somewhere in the last ten days of January or the first twenty days of February, nearly halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox. Although the Lunar New Year is observed throughout East Asia, each country celebrates Vietnamese New Year in its own way in conformity with its own national psyche and cultural conditions.
For the Vietnamese people, Vietnamese New Year is like a combination of Western Saint Sylvester, New Year’s Day, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. It is the festival of Purity and Renewal.
Nature always renews its youth, returning to its primary purity and freshness. People, who are part of Nature, follow the same course.

Vietnamese New Year, the first day of spring, carries with it all the rebirth connotations that Easter has in the West. In the course of this period of universal renewal and rejuvenation, the Vietnamese feel the spring sap welling up within them. This feeling has given rise to special customs: every deed during the three days of Vietnamese New Year should be well intentioned and finely realized, for it symbolizes and forecasts actions during the coming twelve months. One abstains from getting cross, from using bad language. The most shrewish mother-in-law smokes the pipe of peace with her daughter-in-law. Quarreling husbands and wives bury their hatchets. Children promise to be good, grown-ups hand the children gifts, which are often coins wrapped in scarlet paper since red is the color of luck. The children are happy to get new clothes. Beggars are given alms. The “new” world must be the best of the worlds. Once the holy resting time is over, activities resume with a new frame of mind after inaugurating ceremonies: “inauguration of the seals” for civil servants, “inauguration of the pen-brush” for scholars and students, “inauguration of the shop” for traders.
For the Vietnamese, Vietnamese New Year brings a message of confidence in humanity; it brings redemption, hope and optimism.

Vietnamese New Year Customs in Vietnamese New Year

Clean and decorate the home

Homes are often cleaned and decorated before New Year’s Eve. Children are in charge of sweeping and scrubbing the floor. The kitchen needs to be cleaned before the 23rd night of the last month. Usually, the head of the household cleans the dust and ashes (from incense) from the ancestral altars. It is a common belief that cleaning the house will get rid of the bad fortunes associated with the old year. Some people would paint their house and decorate with festive items.

Literally means “getting new clothes”

This is often the most exciting part of the Vietnamese New Year among children. Parents usually purchase new clothes and shoes for their children a month prior to the New Year. However, children cannot wear their new clothes until the first day of the New Year and onward. The best outfit is always worn on the first day of the year.

Farewell ceremony for the Kitchen Gods (Ong Tao)

Seven days (the 23rd night of the last lunar month) prior to Tet, each Vietnamese family offers a farewell ceremony for Ong Tao to go up to Heaven Palace. His task is to make an annual report to the Jade Emperor of the family’s affairs throughout the year.

New Year’s Eve

However, in a literal translation, it means “Passage from the Old to the New Year”. It is a common belief among Vietnamese people that there are 12 Sacred Animals from the Zodiac taking turn monitoring and controlling the affairs of the earth. Thus, Giao Thua (New Year’s Eve)is the moment of seeing the old chief (Dragon for 2000) end his ruling term and pass his power to the new chief (Snake for 2001). Giao Thua is also the time for Ong Tao (Kitchen God) to return to earth after making the report to the Jade Emperor. Every single family should offer an open-air ceremony to welcome him back to their kitchen.

The Aura of the Earth

Giao Thua is the most sacred time of the year. Therefore, the first houseguest to offer the first greeting is very important. If that particular guest has a good aura (well respected, well educated, successful, famous, etc.), then the family believes that they will receive luck and good fortune throughout the year. The belief of xong dat still remains nowadays, especially among families with businesses.

Apricot flowers and peach flowers

Apricot flowers

Flower buds and blossoms are the symbols for new beginning. These two distinctive flowers are widely sold and purchased during Tet. Hoa Mai are the yellow apricot flowers often seen in Southern Viet Nam. Hoa Mai are more adaptable to the hot weather of southern regions, thus, it is known as the primary flower in every home. Hoa Dao are the warm pink of the peach blossoms that match well with the dry, cold weather from the North. Tet is not Tet if there is no sight of Hoa Mai (south) or Hoa Dao (north) in every home.

peach flower

Giving away red envelopes (filled with lucky money)

This is a cultural practice that has been maintained for generations. The red envelopes symbolize luck and wealth. It is very common to see older people giving away sealed red envelopes to younger people. Before the younger ones could receive the envelopes, they have to perform a certain greeting. Here is a sample of a greeting I might have to say to the Professor:
Thua thay, nam moi, con xin kinh chuc thay duoc doi giau suc khoe va gia dinh an khang thinh vuong! (Dear teacher, this New Year, I am respectfully wishing for you to have an abundance of strength and physical wellness, and your family to live in peace and prosperity).
Reciprocally, the older ones would return good advice and words of wisdom, encouraging the younger ones to keep up with the schoolwork, live harmoniously with others, and obey their parents.
This greeting ritual and Li Xi is also known as Mung Tuoi, honoring the achievement of another year to one’s life.

Making offers for the Ancestors

This ceremony is held on the first day of the New Year before noontime. The head of the household should perform the proper ritual (offering food, wine, cakes, fruits, and burn incense) to invite the souls of the ancestors to join the celebration with the family. This is the time families honor the souls of their ancestors and present the welfare of the family.

The Plate of Five Fruits in Vietnamese New Year in Vietnamese New Year

A plate filled with five types of fruits sits on the ancestor’s altar in every Vietnamese home during the New Year. The fruits are colorful and meaningful. They make New Year more lively and sacred. In Asian mythology, the world is made of five basic elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. The plate of fruits on the family altar at New Year is one of several ways to represent this concept. The plate of fruits also represents the desire for good crops and prosperity.
The plate of fruits traditionally contains five to eight types: a bunch of bananas, a grapefruit, “Buddha’s-hand” fruit, a lemon, oranges, tangerines, apples, or persimmons. Families choose only the best looking fruit, which are arranged in a pyramid.
This practice has changed with modern lifestyles. Other fruits such as sapodilla, watermelons, coconuts, and custard apples may be added to the plate. Some families even use flowers and small colored electric lights to decorate the plate.

The plate of fruits in northern Vietnam is usually smaller than in the south. The three required fruits in the north are bananas, grapefruit and tangerines or oranges. The plate in southern Vietnam must have watermelons, custard apples, coconut, papaya and mangoes. The names of these fruits in Vietnam echo words signifying prayers for wealth.
The plate of fruits gives the family altar a cozy and colorful look. It helps to stress the importance of family traditions and family life.

Parallel Sentences in Vietnamese New Year in Vietnamese New Year

Parallelism played an important role in Vietnamese classical literary style. It marks every literary genre from prose to poetry, including a kind of rhymed pose. It entirely governs a particular genre, call parallel sentences.
A pair of parallel sentences comprises tow parts, the words of which must stand opposite to one another in the six tones of the Vietnamese language as well as in meaning.
In Vietnam in the old days, parallel sentences were composed during meetings between literati, in salons, on the occasion of festivals, weddings, and even funerals. According to the circumstances, their contents might be solemn, laudatory, or mocking.
On New Year’s Day, every home liked to have a pair of parallel sentences composed and written by a scholar on red paper and hung in the place of honor, usually on both sides of the entrance door or of the ancestors’ altar. In Hanoi, during the weeks preceding New Year , Hang Bo Street was crowed with people coming to buy parallel sentences from white-bearded calligraphers, whose stalls lined both sides of the street.

Here are two pairs of well-known, old New Year parallel sentences:
Fat meat, pickled onions, red parallel sentences
New Year pole, strings of firecrackers, green Chung cake.
On the New Years’ Eve, pay debts on all sides; bending your legs, kick out poverty.
On New Years’ day, rice wine makes your drunk; stretching your arms, carry in wealth

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