Nguyễn Hữu Cường (Trích từ


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If the new year is the time of renewal, Lunar New Year is surely the queen of new years. Renewal is not merely personal but cosmic; parties aren’t just thrown for friends and family but for gods and dead ancestors. You can wish Chúc Mừng Năm Mới (Greet New Year to You) to the Vietnamese, or Phat Tai (Wealth) to the Chinese. The lunar new year is the most important holiday in the Asian culture. It is a day of colorful festivities, some as familiar as firecrackers and dragon dances. It is also a day of traditional rituals, rich in symbolism, legends and superstitions dating thousands of years —and unknown to non-Asian as well as many Asian American youths.

In Asia, Lunar New Year is a heady weeks-long affair, filled with parades, incense and firecrackers, fortune-telling and banquets with heaping plates of dumplings, pork hams, sweet rice, and sweet cakes. Shooting off firecrackers on New Year’s Eve is the oriental way of sending out the old year and welcoming in the New Year. On the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, every door in the house, and even windows, have to be open to allow the old year to go out.

In America, Asian Americans celebrate by eating traditional foods, watching dragon dances, calling on relatives and friends, passing out “lee see” (lucky money) —fresh, scrip bills stuffed in red envelopes. Lee-see is usually given to children and unmarried youngsters as a way of sharing luck among loved ones. Although oversea festivities tend to be smaller, they are based on the same rituals celebrated in their own motherlands: frightening off evil spirits and ushering in good ones by thanking the gods, respecting ancestors and asking for blessing.

During the new year parades, the dragons usually visit nearly stores and restaurants. Their dances, accompanying by firecrackers, will frighten bad spirits. Business owners will “feed” the dragons lucky money inside heads of lettuce, which the dragons shred and “spit” into the air. Lettuce is considered lucky because its Chinese name, sang choi, sounds like the words of “born prosperous.”

To the Vietnamese Têt Nguyên Đán is the Ultimate Holiday. There is nothing like it in the West. Besides the beginning of a new year, Tet also marks the beginning of Spring and everybody’s birthday. The actual Tet holiday is three days, though most people tend to take seven or more days off. It is a time for family reunions, exchanging gifs, best wishes, correcting one’s faults, forgiving others, paying debts; in short, to start the new year with a clean slate. Literally, Tet Nguyen Dan means the first morning of the first day of the new period. Officially, it marks the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar. In reality, it is a friendly, festive, family holiday. Painstaking care is given to starting the year out right, since it is believed the first day and the first week of the new year will determine the fortunes or misfortunes for the rest of the year.

The first signs of the impending holiday show up a month before Tet. Workmen start building stalls near the markets to sell holiday items such as New Year’s greeting cards, candied fruits and decorations. Prices for everything begin to rise. Public and private buildings get a new coat of paint. Two weeks before, there is a noticeable increase in the number of shoppers. Besides clothing, people are buying presents for family and friends, and starting to stock up the larder for the guests who will be visiting over the three day holiday.

Families also paste up strips of red paper —câu đối— with sayings of wealth, happiness, prosperity, and longevity; buy “Mai” and “Đao” flowering branches for good luck, and other fruits with names reminding of their wishes for the coming year. A câu đối, “sentence pair”, a literary art form of Chinese origin (parallel sentences), consists of two sentences or lines. Each line corresponds with the other meaning as well as tone pattern and individual word meaning. The cau doi is usually used to convey good wishes on the Tet holidays. It is highly specialized form of poetry.

The entire house should be cleaned before New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are hidden away. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year’s Day and the next two days for fear that good fortune will be swept away. After the first three days, the floors may be swept in a special routine. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. In sweeping, there is a superstition that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the family away. Also, to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be swept inwards and then carried out, then no harm will follow. All dirt and rubbish must be taken out the back door. Do not use knives or scissors on New Year’s Day as this may cut off fortune.

Exactly one week before Tet is the day that the Kitchen Gods —a wife and two husbands— leave the kitchen-hearth to report the year’s events in the household to the Jade Emperor at the heaven court. This Feast of the Kitchen Gods —Le Tao Quan— falls on the twenty-third. They are sent off with a feast (including burning sacrificial gold paper and offering a fish-carp skeleton for them to ride on their journey to heaven), which will hopefully influence their report favorably. The next day, a bamboo pole, (New Year’s Tree — Cây Nêu) stripped of its leaves except for a tuft on top, is planted at the front yard. Red paper and clay bells decorate the tree. It is supposed to ward off the evil spirits during absence of the Kitchen Gods who leave the family at this time to visit the palace of the Jade Emperor.

Meanwhile, a giant open-air flower market is organized in a popular location or an avenue, and begins to fill up with potted flowers of all kinds. For the next week, the market is the focal point of the city, as many people buy flowers as a symbol of Spring. The ideal is to have the flowers bloom just at Tet, so much care is given in picking just the right ones.

Families begin choosing Tet trees, much as Americans choose Christmas trees. The Tet tree, or tac, is a cone-shaped fruit tree with miniature oranges, painstakingly pruned to maximize the number of fruits which should be just ripening at Tet. The more fruit on the tree, the luckier will be the owner. A large tac tree can be twelve feet tall, covered with hundreds of miniature oranges. Office parties are given, along with Tet bonuses (equivalent to a month salary). It becomes hard to do any business, as everyone’s mind is on the upcoming holiday.

Two days before Tet, the people are deep into cleaning and decorating their houses. Greeting cards and good luck symbols are hung from Tet trees. The flower market is jammed with brightly dressed families and couples strolling, taking pictures, buying plants. Traffic is heavy, the mood festive. Those families who still make the traditional Banh Chung, the cake of sticky rice and meat symbolizing the Earth, start the two day process of cooking. Traditionally, no cooking is done during the three day holiday, so all food must be prepared beforehand. Cleaning is also frowned upon during Tet (one would not want to sweep out any good luck) as is digging or drawing water (in order to allow the ground and water to enjoy the holiday). Don’t expect laundry to be done during this time, or shops and services to be open.

Traditionally, Asian women sweep the floors on the day of the new year eve to symbolize the sweeping away of the year bad lucks and then hide away the brooms. On New Year’s Day no sweeping is allowed and no knives are used in cooking, for fear that good spirits, good lucks will be swept or cut away. Families also paste up strips of red paper with sayings of wealth, happiness, prosperity, and longevity; buy “Mai” and “Đao” flowering branches for good luck, and other fruits with names reminding of their wishes for the coming year.

Tet Eve brings a big crush of last minute shopping, rivaling Christmas Eve in the States. The flower market starts closing down in the late morning as many people want to get home for the noon feast to welcome the arrival of the spirits of the ancestors, returning to enjoy the holidays with their progeny. There is a run on branches of the Mai tree, a symbol of spring, which bear lucky little yellow flowers. Huge red balloons appear on the streets, eagerly being bought up by homeward bound shoppers. Most all offices close at noon, and many restaurants close to give the employees a few days off to be with their families. By ten o’clock, the streets are nearly deserted, everyone at home, awaiting the magic hour of midnight.

Giao Thua is the transition moment between the old year and the new year. It is one of the most important times during the Tet holidays. It occurs at the midnight hour on New Year’s Eve. Giao Thua is the time when a family ushers out the spirits of the old year, a ritual called Le Tru Tich. Drums, gongs and firecrackers announced the hour of Le Giao Thua. Nobody would dare to sleep by this moment or risk of “loosing one age”. All members of the family —dressing in new clothes— gather in the living room, pray together, then congratulate the New Year and wish each other the very bests for the coming year; the oldest set of parents (usually the grandparents) are congratulated and offered best wishes first, then the order is trickled down! Shortly after midnight, many Buddhists go to their favorite pagoda to pray for a good year. They return home with a young branch of a tree with lot of bulbs, a lucky symbol. Many families will eat a simple meal after midnight, perhaps drink some rice wine or champagne. Many families also cut open a watermelon: if it is red inside, it is a good omen (red being the luckiest color). Gambling is also a favorite after midnight activity, and continues for the three days of Tet and beyond. Midnight is marked by a tremendous barrage of firecrackers, every family setting of strings to scare off the evil spirits and give applause to the new year.

At mid-morning, the visiting starts, people filling the streets. The first day of Tet is reserved for visiting family and relatives, the second day for special guests and close friends, and the third day for teachers, friends and business associates. The first visitor of the year to a house is the most significant, being a portent of the coming year’s fortune. Particular care is taken to arrange in advance to have the visitor be rich, happy, and pretigious. Usually, it is a member of the family or a relative, but sometimes a special guest may be invited if he or she is considered to be a lucky person. After the initial greeting, visitors are served candied fruits and dried watermelon seeds. Tea, coffee, beer, champagne or whiskey are also offered, as well as more substantial fare, such as Banh Chung or Banh Tet, spring rolls or a pate-like sausage. Pickled green onions are a universal snack, especially when drinking. There are many pleasantries exchanged, and everyone is on his best behavior. Negative talk is a taboo, as the attitude of the first few days of the new year sets the tone for the remainder of the year.

When leaving the house, elaborate wishes for the new year are exchanged…at the least long life, happiness and prosperity, but also more specific wishes such as “I wish that money may flow into your house like water, and out like a turtle.”

Everyone should refrain from using foul language and bad or unlucky words. Negative terms and the word “four” (Tu/Su), which sounds like the word for death, are not to be uttered. Death and dying are never mentioned and ghost stories are totally taboo. References to the past year are also avoided as everything should be turned toward the New Year and a new beginning.

All debts had to paid by this time. Nothing should be lent on this day, as anyone who does so will be lending all the year. Back when tinder and flint were used, no one would lend them on this day or give a light to others.

On New Year’s Day, we are not suppose to wash our hair because it would mean we would have washed away good luck for the New Year. Red clothing is preferred during this festive occasion. Red is considered a bright, happy color, sure to bring the wearer a sunny and bright future. It is believed that appearance and attitude during New Year’s sets the tone for the rest of the year. If you cry on New Year’s day, you will cry all through the year. Therefore, children are tolerated and are not spanked, even though they are mischievous.

Before leaving the house for the very first time, the Fung-chou/astrological almanac should be consulted to find the best time to leave the home and the direction which is most auspicious to head out. The first person one meets and the first words heard are significant as to what the fortunes would be for the entire year. It is a lucky sign to see or hear songbirds or red-colored birds or swallows.

Children are especially favored. Besides presents, they receive lee see, or lucky money, in red envelopes from their parents, older relatives and older friends. Even their older siblings give them lee see. As a result, the youngest cash in. Gambling is very popular during Tet. There are games in the streets with neighbors, games in homes, games in cars. Supposedly, one gets a feel for his coming luck in the new year by his luck in gambling, however, it’s not so bad if one loses, as that means one will be lucky in other affairs.

On the third day of Tet, there is yet another feast, again using virgin chicken, to bid farewell to ancestors returning to their ethereal abodes. On the fourth day of Tet, work is supposed to start again. In the city, people go back to their offices in the morning, but it is usually only to offer their workmates New Years greetings. Most usually leave early, to catch up on missed visits or missed sleep. In fact, it is not until the sixth day of Tet that people get serious about work, and the city returns to normal. For it is a time of excess; one does not just enjoy Tet, one “eats” Tet. It stimulates all the senses. And thus the New Year starts.

The holiday is also observed by a family visit to the church or pagoda to pray for good fortune and happiness. A sprig of the yellow blossomed —Hoa Mai— is used to decorate the home. Tet officially lasts for seven days and ends with Le Khai Ha ritual during which Cay Neu is taken down.

While many oriental people today may not believe in these do’s and don’ts, these traditions and customs are still practiced. They are kept because most families realize that these very traditions, whether believed or not, provide a continuity with the past and support the family with an identity.

I wish you a happy new year.