Sketches of Tet Customs


Article by O^ng Nhu*-Ngo.c, features in Non So^ng mazagine

 

The warm sun rays dissolve dreamy smoke,
Leaving golden glitters
on several cottages’ roofs.
Rustling, the wind teases her blue blouse,
On an ivy wall**-shadows the Spring.
From “The Ripen Spring,” a poem by Ha`n Ma(.c Tu*?

Some fresh sun rays, some fresh wind.  These are enough to signal a new Spring season.  However new it is, Spring only lies within the forever cycle of Nature’s four seasons.   Similarly is Mr. Ha`n poem which was composed a long time ago but sounds fresh as yesterday.  The way to greet the spring is very old, perhaps originated thousands of years ago in the soft drizzle in Northern Vietnam.  Back then, the Vietnamese people began calling the first days of spring “Te^’t” (mispronounced from the word “tie^’t,” meaning “season,” or, in an elaborated sense, “festival season”).  However old they are, the customs of Te^’t still reflect special characteristics of the Vietnamese culture generation after generation.  Te^’t is the time to reunite one’s family, both the living and the dead members; Te^’t is also the time to renew and strengthen one’s friendship bondage; and finally, Te^’t is the time to revive past experiences in preparing oneself for new experiences to come.  Spring time in a foreign land, let us review some sketches of the Te^’t customs.

I. Spending Te^’t with Family

Similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations of the Western tradition, Te^’t is the time to reunite all family members.  Children and grandchildren working and schooling away from home are granted vacation time to return home around twenty-third of the lunar month of December.  However, an average Vietnamese family spends half of the lunar month of December to be well prepared for Te^’t.  There are many things to do, for example: buying flowers, firecrackers, and incense, shopping for new clothes, cooking rice cakes (ba’nh chu*ng, ba’nh da^`y), and cleaning the house.  By New Year’s Eve (the thirtieth of December), all the purchases have to be completed; the ancestors’ altar has to be tidy; all dishes have to be cooked; and the firecrackers have to be ready.

1. Visiting the ancestors’ graves
From the twenty-third to New Year’s Eve, members of the family visit and clean the burial sites of their deceased relatives and ancestors.  They often bring with them incense sticks, flowers, and fruit to the grave sites and invite the deceased to the Te^’t celebration with the family.  When there was no cemetery in the countryside of Vietnam, few families possessed tracks of land large enough to each family that went to visit the graves also brought with them Te^’t gifts for the landlords who lent them the land or for the caretaker of the cemetery (if the graves were in a cemetery).

2. Seeing Ta’o Qua^n off to Heaven
The story about Ta’o qua^n (“Kitchen Gods” in English, consisted of two males and one female) generally goes as follow: Once upon a time, there lived a couple who were poor but very affectionate toward each other.  Since their hard work barely covered the expense, the husband decided to travel away to try out his fortune, hoping to become rich so that his wife would not have to work so hard.  Unfortunately, he was gone for three years without returning.  The wife waited during that time, became certain that he was dead, and got married with a rich man.  Her heart, however, still lingered with her old husband.  One day, close to the advent of the new year (possibly on twenty-third of December?), the new husband’s family organized a big offering-party for their ancestors, so there were beggars waiting at the door for some leftover food.  When the wife passed out the food for them, she suddenly realized that one of the beggars was her old husband.  The new husband saw that, jumped to the conclusion that his wife was not loyal to him, and scolded her.  Writhing in the painful notion that she was misunderstood, the wife jumped in the big fire burning votive gold and silver and committed suicide.  The old husband missed her and jumped into the fire after her.  The new husband regretted his words, but both were burnt, so he jumped into the fire himself.  The three souls floated up into Heaven appeared before the King of Heaven.  The King of Heaven, feeling sorry for their situations, told their spirits to return to the earth to watch over the fire in the kitchen of each family and came back to Heaven to report the good and bad happenings in each family during the year.  And so, all human deeds would ultimately be reported to the King of Heaven toward the end of the year.  On the twenty-third of December, besides a meal with good food (depending on the income of the family), every family also offer Ta’o qua^n new hats and new shirts (made out of paper) to wear and one or three live carp(s) swimming in a bowl of water to ride back to Heaven.

3. The Ceremony to welcome back the ancestor
On the evening of New Year’s Eve, all dishes and fruits are assembled into an offering-party on the ancestors’ altar.  Here comes the time for the whole family to congregate before the spirits of ancestors, review events of the past year, and retrieve valuable experiences for the coming year.

The warm sun rays dissolve dreamy smoke,
Leaving golden glitters
on several cottages’ roofs.
Rustling, the wind teases her blue blouse,
On an ivy wall**-shadows the Spring.
From “The Ripen Spring,” a poem by Ha`n Ma(.c Tu*?

Some fresh sun rays, some fresh wind.  These are enough to signal a new Spring season.  However new it is, Spring only lies within the forever cycle of Nature’s four seasons.   Similarly is Mr. Ha`n poem which was composed a long time ago but sounds fresh as yesterday.  The way to greet the spring is very old, perhaps originated thousands of years ago in the soft drizzle in Northern Vietnam.  Back then, the Vietnamese people began calling the first days of spring “Te^’t” (mispronounced from the word “tie^’t,” meaning “season,” or, in an elaborated sense, “festival season”).  However old they are, the customs of Te^’t still reflect special characteristics of the Vietnamese culture generation after generation.  Te^’t is the time to reunite one’s family, both the living and the dead members; Te^’t is also the time to renew and strengthen one’s friendship bondage; and finally, Te^’t is the time to revive past experiences in preparing oneself for new experiences to come.  Spring time in a foreign land, let us review some sketches of the Te^’t customs.

I. Spending Te^’t with Family

Similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations of the Western tradition, Te^’t is the time to reunite all family members.  Children and grandchildren working and schooling away from home are granted vacation time to return home around twenty-third of the lunar month of December.  However, an average Vietnamese family spends half of the lunar month of December to be well prepared for Te^’t.  There are many things to do, for example: buying flowers, firecrackers, and incense, shopping for new clothes, cooking rice cakes (ba’nh chu*ng, ba’nh da^`y), and cleaning the house.  By New Year’s Eve (the thirtieth of December), all the purchases have to be completed; the ancestors’ altar has to be tidy; all dishes have to be cooked; and the firecrackers have to be ready.

1. Visiting the ancestors’ graves
From the twenty-third to New Year’s Eve, members of the family visit and clean the burial sites of their deceased relatives and ancestors.  They often bring with them incense sticks, flowers, and fruit to the grave sites and invite the deceased to the Te^’t celebration with the family.  When there was no cemetery in the countryside of Vietnam, few families possessed tracks of land large enough to each family that went to visit the graves also brought with them Te^’t gifts for the landlords who lent them the land or for the caretaker of the cemetery (if the graves were in a cemetery).

2. Seeing Ta’o Qua^n off to Heaven
The story about Ta’o qua^n (“Kitchen Gods” in English, consisted of two males and one female) generally goes as follow: Once upon a time, there lived a couple who were poor but very affectionate toward each other.  Since their hard work barely covered the expense, the husband decided to travel away to try out his fortune, hoping to become rich so that his wife would not have to work so hard.  Unfortunately, he was gone for three years without returning.  The wife waited during that time, became certain that he was dead, and got married with a rich man.  Her heart, however, still lingered with her old husband.  One day, close to the advent of the new year (possibly on twenty-third of December?), the new husband’s family organized a big offering-party for their ancestors, so there were beggars waiting at the door for some leftover food.  When the wife passed out the food for them, she suddenly realized that one of the beggars was her old husband.  The new husband saw that, jumped to the conclusion that his wife was not loyal to him, and scolded her.  Writhing in the painful notion that she was misunderstood, the wife jumped in the big fire burning votive gold and silver and committed suicide.  The old husband missed her and jumped into the fire after her.  The new husband regretted his words, but both were burnt, so he jumped into the fire himself.  The three souls floated up into Heaven appeared before the King of Heaven.  The King of Heaven, feeling sorry for their situations, told their spirits to return to the earth to watch over the fire in the kitchen of each family and came back to Heaven to report the good and bad happenings in each family during the year.  And so, all human deeds would ultimately be reported to the King of Heaven toward the end of the year.  On the twenty-third of December, besides a meal with good food (depending on the income of the family), every family also offer Ta’o qua^n new hats and new shirts (made out of paper) to wear and one or three live carp(s) swimming in a bowl of water to ride back to Heaven.

3. The Ceremony to welcome back the ancestor
On the evening of New Year’s Eve, all dishes and fruits are assembled into an offering-party on the ancestors’ altar.  Here comes the time for the whole family to congregate before the spirits of ancestors, review events of the past year, and retrieve valuable experiences for the coming year.

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