Tet: A Traditional Vietnamese Holiday and the Question of Gender Bias
Thuy Do, PhD Student
“Tết Tết Tết … Tết đến rồi
Tết đến trong tim mọi người”
“Tet Tet Tet … Tet is coming
Tet is coming in the heart of everyone”
Tet is the Lunar New Year holiday in Vietnamese. When talking about Tet, every Vietnamese living abroad feels emotional even though the holiday falls on regular days when everyone is going to work or to school. For each member of the Vietnamese diaspora, Tet is in their heart, as noted in the song lyric above, because celebrating Tet in a foreign country is not the exciting, passionate, and all-consuming experience that it is in Vietnam.
Cooking Chung Cake and Playing Lotto
The traditions of Tet are celebrated differently in the various regions of Vietnam. They not only encompass the First, Second, and the Third day of the New Year, but also the preparations that start a week before that. For my family and in my hometown in southeast Vietnam, Tet begins on the day we pray to send the Kitchen God (lễ đưa ông Táo) off to heaven, which we do on December 23 of the Lunar Year. For most families throughout Vietnam, Tet preparations start the day after that.
The tradition of Tet is characterized by the food that people cook and eat including homemade vegetable pickles and sticky rice cakes in addition to many other foods made from meat mostly chicken and pork. In my hometown, almost all of the above dishes are made at home, so the atmosphere in each household is lively on these days. Thirty years ago or so, when commodities were limited and everyone had little money to buy supplies, families started to make all kinds of fruit jam for Tet instead. These jams were delicious and the process of making the jam was so much fun. With time, however, and as young women left to work in the city or other towns, few families made their own fruit jams for Tet, buying jams from the market instead. This change reduced the bustle and excitement of Tet holidays in my hometown.
Another significant day during the Tet holiday is December 25 of the Lunar Year. On this day, all those who have lost family members, whether Buddhist or Catholic, visit the respective graveyards to clean the graves, paint them, and decorate them with flowers. As part of the ritual, people will light incense, pray, and offer cookies and/or fruit to those who have passed away and are buried there. While the event may be solemn, the atmosphere in the cemeteries while cleaning the graves, buying the flowers, and decorating is also celebratory and enhances the energy and enthusiasm of this commemorative act. This tradition is a spiritual remembrance of the deceased and a cultural moment that binds those living in the present together. However, many young people are not able to join in and to perform this act of remembrance with their families. The grave day does not always fall on weekends and young people working far away from home are unable to attend the event. Now, it is mostly the young people living in the countryside and the elderly who participate in the grave cleaning tradition, but the effect is still very uplifting.
On December 29 or 30 of the Lunar Year, another significant ceremony takes place. It is the day when families invite their ancestors to come to their homes to enjoy Tet. In my hometown, families originally from the North often practice this tradition, families originally from Central and South West regions do not, but this cultural practice still extends throughout the Mekong Delta. Family members and relatives will share hosting duties and worship with one another at a series of events. For example, my parents will worship at noon and offer a lunch afterwards while other family members, such as my aunts and uncles, will host festivities in the afternoon. People often joke that on this day we make our ancestors work, obliging them to run from party to party to party!
For these parties, families usually make Chung Cake, a sticky rice cake. It has to be wrapped and cooked before the worship event so that the cakes can be lit on the altar. My parents usually prepare Chung Cake for our family on December 28 or 29 and it depends on which day they’ve selected to invite our ancestors in to enjoy Tet.
I cannot say what the practices are within other families and in other regions, but the worshipping traditions in my family and my extended family clearly show an ideological gender bias that values men more than women. For example, the men in my family, my father and my uncle, are always the ones to stand outside and to pray to our ancestors after the banquet is served on the altar.
After the day of worship and the celebration of Tet with one’s ancestors, the altar must be lit with incense and a simple tray of food prepared each and every day until it’s time to bid our ancestors farewell. On the day when we say goodbye to our ancestors, my parents and my extended family divide hosting duties again and we all attend each other’s parties. The day for these ceremonies and celebrations are either the second or third day of Tet after which the altar returns to its everyday status and there is no longer a need to light incense every hour.
While many of the traditional rituals are tied to Buddhist culture, the Tet holiday encompasses other traditions, which vary throughout Vietnam. In my family, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, we are all very happy and also very tired. The children will go back and forth to different houses to offer best wishes to the adults and to get their lucky money. For example, my uncle's children would come over to my parents’ home to see my parents while my sisters and I would go to the homes of my uncles and aunts. However, if a woman is pregnant, she is absolutely forbidden to go to the homes of other people on the first day of Tet. A pregnant woman, people believe, will bring bad luck to the family if she visits them on that day. Similarly, if a woman goes out on the first day of Tet, she should not go too early because most families do not want to welcome a woman, no matter how successful she may be, as their first guest, the first footer, at the start of the new year. On the first day of Tet people are also not supposed to sweep garbage out of their home because that is seen to be the same as sweeping money out the door. To clean one’s home on the first day of Tet, the garbage is swept up into a corner of the house and the garbage is not taken out of the home until the next day, the second day of the new year.
In my family, what my sisters, children, nieces, nephews, and I most enjoyed, apart from the mandatory ceremonies, was making Chung Cake at my parents’ home and staying up together until midnight on our New Year's Eve. In addition to being fun, it is a spiritual moment. We pray for our ancestors, offer our best wishes to one other, especially from the younger in the family to the older, from my sisters, brothers, and me to our parents. Another memorable moment during Tet is when we go to the temple together on the first day and play games together in the evening.
This year, 2018 to 2019, I was in Canada for the Tet holiday. My children, teenagers now, asked me on December 28, “Mom, did our grandparents make Chung Cake this year?” It made me feel nostalgic for the holidays I would spend with my family in Vietnam because the activities we all did together for the Tet holiday are some of the most beautiful family experiences I have had and they are the foundation for unforgettable memories. While I recognize the gender bias embedded within the traditional ceremonies and celebrations of Tet, it is also an opportunity for family members to reunite and to honour their common ancestry. This is especially heartfelt after a year of being apart for many families and years for those who may be very far away from Vietnam as I am. The fullest expression of Tet is only realized when one has one’s extended family nearby and by emphasizing these connections, Tet enhances the value, idea, and experience of family.