Imagine you can roll the fun-filled spirit of New Year, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, and every single birthday celebration altogether into just one festive occasion- this is the  significance of “Tết,” the traditional Lunar New Year celebration for Vietnamese people.

Like many east Asian countries, Vietnam has adopted from China the traditional celebration on the first day of the lunar year, which coordinates to the monthly cycle of the moon. Thousands of years of celebration have added local colors to this Chinese-rooted annual fest, making it known in the heart of every Vietnamese as uniquely our own. Aside from being a large-scale national celebration with contests, parades, music and street ornaments, Tết is first and foremost a family-oriented festival. Family members and close relatives who live far away feel obligated to travel to visit each other for at least this one time of the year. New Year is the time when we try to have only good thoughts and say only kind words to one another.

Tết signifies a new beginning for all. There are many designated rituals, to invite good tidings into the house and dismiss evil spirits, that are still observed faithfully by the people. Some include wearing red, burning firecrackers (which has been replaced by firework shows), avoiding sweeping the house and avoiding fighting and conflicts. We also never neglect making offerings to our deceased ancestors on the New Year, as a joyful welcoming of the presence of their spirits at the family gathering. People give thanks for the ancestors’ blessings over the past year and pray for good fortune in the new year to come. On the eve of Tết, everyone in the family gives a hand in preparing food for the offerings and for a 3-day long festive celebration. An indispensable Tết dish, so popular that it has become a symbol of the occasion, is bánh chưng, a type of rice cake made with glutinous rice and stuffed with beans and pork, wrapped in banana leaves. Another unique food offering is the combination of four fruits on one plate: custard apples, coconuts, papayas, and mangos, whose names taken together is a language pun for “I wish for just what I need.” On the first day of Tết, family members gather together to exchange good wishes and blessings. Children receive “lucky money” in red envelopes, which also serves as a reminder that they are now a year older. As we do not traditionally celebrate individual birthdays, New Year is automatically considered a “birthday” for everyone. Over the course of the next few days, families make visits to friends and families around town. Visits are short (so we can get to as many households as possible) and consist of blessings exchanges and friendly chat over a table of traditional Tết snack food and a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Vietnamese believe that visitors bring their good fortunes to the household they visit, and they would especially welcome someone of higher status, or a beloved friend.

Thao Nguyen

Lunar New Year Celebration on February 20