Tết Nguyên Đán (“festival of the first dawn”) celebrates the beginning of the year based on a lunisolar calendar. It is so central to Viet culture that people refer to it simply as Tết. The first day occurs between late January and mid February on the Gregorian calendar.
Traditions observed during Tết follow an arc from universe to kith and kin to self that underscores one’s place within the family, in the community, and ultimately, in the universe.
From wherever you are, find your way home.
Dust, clean, let go of all useless things and provably useless thoughts.
On the 23rd of tháng chạp (the last month of the preceding year), offerings are made to the Táo Quân deities as they ascend to heaven with an account of everyone’s deeds and misdeeds. A cây nêu is erected – a link between earth and sky – to ward off evil until the deities’ return.
Homes are decorated with a profusion of flowers selected for their symbolic meanings: Plum (prunus mume) blossoms for hope; yellow mai (ochna) or white narcissus for luck; chrysanthemum for a long life. Near the entrance, câu đối đỏ (“couplets on red scrolls”) welcome the new year with poetry and wit.
Lễ giao thừa (“ceremony to transition from old to new”), at midnight, on the eve of Tết marks the changing of the celestial guard: Each year in the 12-year orbit of Jupiter around the sun, humanity is guided by a different Quan Hành Khiển. The offering usually includes a ngũ quả or five-fruit tray; on either side of it is a pair of candles – the sun and the moon; in front of it, incense sticks – the stars; next to it, a cup of purified water.
The giỗ gia tiên (“feast to commemorate ancestors”) on the first day of Tết is an occasion for the extended family to gather. The feast includes bánh chưng, thịt kho or cá kho (caramelized pork belly or fish), kiệu (pickled scallions), xôi gấc (gấc-infused sticky rice), giò chả (pork roll) – dishes that can be prepared ahead of time because no one wants to be spending Tết in the kitchen.
Put together your five-fruit tray. Renew your faith in a just universe; be mindful of the infinitesimal notch in time that is your presence in it.
Remember where you came from. If you cannot afford to dole out money in red envelopes, resolve not to ruin it for the kids by destroying the planet.
If the focus of the first day is on family, the second day is for visiting with friends, the third day for paying respect to teachers and mentors. During these visits, children receive lì xì (money in red envelopes) just for being a year older. Grown-ups exchange wishes for the new year. All may overload on sugar sampling the host’s array of mứt (candied fruit).
Buying salt on the first day is believed to bring good fortune to the household. So is having as the first visitor someone with a warm personality and high moral character, even if it means going to great lengths to prearrange such a visit. Starting on the second day, people pick a propitious time to accomplish a self-defining task – vocational or avocational – to set the right course for the year. Writers write their first sentences. Merchants open up their shops.
Pick something you have long wanted to do. Attempt it like a child discovering finger-paint.
Write a letter – the kind that takes a forever stamp – to someone who pitched in to improve an earlier version of you.