The Tet or Vietnamese New Year begins the first day of the Lunar Year, which may fall in January or February. This year it is Feb. 20. For every Vietnamese, regardless of his or her religion or social status, Tet is the most important, picturesque and attractive holiday festival--and it lasts for a minimum of three days. Traditionally, during this period all businesses are interrupted and all stores are closed.
Tet is not a religious holiday, but it is characterized by all kinds of religious and superstitious practices. Masses are conducted in churches for Vietnamese Catholics on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Confucianists, Buddhists likewise go to temples and pagodas in large numbers to pray for health, prosperity, happiness and peace. They usually bring home fresh leafing branches as a symbol of happiness and luck.
From noon of the last day of the Lunar Year, most streets are empty. At midnight, when the firecrackers noisily explode, the Vietnamese celebrate their "Giao thua"--the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. The celebration is quite different from New Year's Eve in Times Square, where thousands of people jam the streets to roar in the New Year.
For Vietnamese, the head of the family sets up an altar for their ancestors with food and fruit as the main display in the home in order for the family to pay respects to the spirits of the dead. The family gathers around a huge censer of fragrant smoke. With apricot or cherry tree branches around them and a cloud of smoke overhead, the family remains deep in thought as they pay respect to their ancestors. They are thinking about friends who are far away and pray that peace may reign in their family and over their country.
From this time, all daily worries are set aside so that one may start a new year full of hope and have good will for others.
Everyone gets up early on New Year's Day. Children and youngsters are dressed in new clothes. They are reminded to behave themselves and to be careful in what they say or do during the Tet, as their conduct may reflect throughout the year and bring good or bad luck. The Vietnamese believe that whatever happens on the first day of the year will replicate itself and affect their lives throughout the year.
The children anxiously wait for the gift of money wrapped in a red envelope when they offer their wishes for the new year blessing of happiness, longevity and luck to their family and close friends of their parents.
Tet is the opportunity to display the gratitude one feels for the favors and help received during the year. One week preceding the New Year's Day, presents are offered to relatives, close friends and employers. It is customary that wealthy people offer gifts to their relatives who are less fortunate. Gifts are presented to in-laws, and particularly, to in-laws to be.
Social calls on the first day of the New Year are rare. It is believed the first visitor who comes to one's home would influence the turn of events that is to occur during the whole year. Visits by easy-going, pleasant and lucky people are most appreciated, especially those that have a good social position or those parents with many children. The Vietnamese carefully select, in advance, their first visitor. They pick a person they know to be good and successful in life. If during the year this family is beset with bad fortune, the visitor may have to take all the blame and will not be invited next year. Because of this belief, Vietnamese are reluctant to be the first visitors of the New Year.
The first day of Tet is usually reserved for duty calls paid to parents, in-laws, and people for whom one has a special respect or affection.
On the second day, the people participate in various forms of entertainment. Card-playing and all sorts of games of luck are enjoyed in the evenings. This is also the time when theaters attract the most audiences.
Nowadays, not all customs and practices related to Tet have been observed. However, the meaning of Tet stays unchanged. It is a time for family to get together, for entertainment--and for hope.
On Wednesday, the Vietnamese who are living here and overseas will celebrate their Tet. More than any other time of the year, their thoughts are on their motherland, where their parents, relatives or friends still live or where their ancestors are buried.
If you happen to meet a Vietnamese on this special New Year's Day, you will be appreciated with a big understanding smile when you greet him with "Happy New Year" in Vietnamese--"Chuc Mung Nam Moi" (pronounced as Chook Mung Nam Moi).