By Adrian Ɖặng Bảo Oánh
It is about Tết’s time again. This time, the Lunar New Year will fall on January 28 on the western calendar. Being true and loyal to their traditions, Asians who observe the lunar calendar are busy preparing to celebrate their upcoming New Year. Individual ethnic groups from various Asian-American communities are planning celebrations of all sorts and sizes to welcome the new Year of the Rooster. The current Year of the Monkey is ending soon. Each year of the lunar calendar carries the sign of one of the twelve Asian Zodiac animals in proper sequence. The animal-based signs are: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Cat (or Rabbit), the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Goat, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig. Although there are many similarities, this article will focus more specifically on the Vietnamese way of celebrating the New Year, which they call Tết
The proper celebration, in general, involves many aspects to be prepared for. People make certain that their homes are cleaned and repaired to their tip top shapes. Many folks repaint their homes from the inside out to welcome the new year. There are many chores in food preparations to offer the best dishes during the celebration of Tết. The food preparation must start several weeks ahead to finish in time for Tết. The prominent offerings would be bánh chưng (sticky-rice cake), bánh dày (white rice dumpling), and many kinds of sweet goods which consist mostly of candied fruits). The rice cake, square and blocky in shape would represent the earth (the world was thought to be square), and the round rice dumpling would represent the sky or the heavens according to Vietnamese legends and tradition. The Vietnamese people offer these two baked items to honor the creator of all things, the divine God. Everybody should acquire new clothes and wear them during the first three days of the new year. This practice shows respect for the new year; it also shows pride and bring good luck. Poorer families try to tailor their own new outfits if they could not afford to buy new.
The Vietnamese áo dài is the preferred attire during Tết time. It is as traditionally and nationally “Vietnamese” as one can get. It is a tunic that was designed circa 1920. There is a male and a female version of the traditional áo dài. The men’s áo dài is worn more loosely in more subtle colors while the lady’s áo dài is more form fitting, and it comes in more vibrant colors and derivative options. It neatly enhances and shows off the beautiful shape of the female’s body while it is quietly elegant but not revealing at all. The áo dài has been around for about a century, and it is still popular. Its original design has not really changed much. Now that we have more Vietnamese people residing all over the world, women from many countries are taking to wearing áo dài also. American women from all heritages look really good in Vietnamese áo dài. Between the food and the new clothes alone, Tết may get to be very expensive. It is not uncommon for some families to go into debts after the Tết celebration. People actually borrow money to celebrate Tết “properly.”
In modern time, people keep the festivities down to three days. In the past, it could last as long as three months in some parts of the world. People respectfully usher the current year “out” and joyously welcome the new year “in.” People set off firecrackers to chase away any old evil spirits from the last year that are still lingering around, and firecrackers also keep new bad spirits from attempting to enter. The artful dragon dance also serves a similar purpose: it chases away bad spirits and brings good fortunes.
The first day of Tết is the most important day. It is reserved for the closest and highest ranking family members. Lower ranks would go to higher members, usually elders, to show respect and extend to them the best wishes for the new year. In return, the high-ranking family members would wish the visiting members well and hand out “lucky money” in beautiful little envelopes (usually red in color). Folks would visit extended family members and close friends on the second day of Tết. On the third day, they go to other friends and acquaintances.
Every year, the Jade Emperor (or the Divine God) would send a different “supervisor” or observer to each household to observe, record, and make a report at the end of the year. Each event that occurs within the household will be reported to God. This character always resides in the kitchen to watch over everything that goes on in the dwelling. On the twenty-third day of the twelth month (12/23), every residence would arrange a ceremony to send off the current year’s “Kitchen God.” By tradition, and according to the ancient legend, this god rides back to heaven on a carp (fish). Therefore each household would provide a nice-size live carp in a water container, the like of a kid’s plastic splashing pool, for the reporting god to use as transportation back to heaven. Upon arriving in heaven, the Kitchen God will report to the Jade Emperor the year’s worth of occurrences within the residence off a long scroll of paper. The Kitchen God kneels down in front of the Jade Emperor and reads the report in a very poetic and rhythmic way. At the turn of the year, the Jade Emperor will send a newly assigned Kitchen God to each household again for the following year. “Clear for taxi to runway 2017 and hold short until 12/23”. “Clear for takeoff at midnight 12/22 and proceed on course”. “Roger that!.” And off he will go, accurate to the split of a second. Have you ever seen a carp taking off flying at more than light speed?
The Monkey brought with him many interesting things. The nature of the Monkey was, well…to monkey around. He brought us some good events. He also brought us some questionable events. And true to being a “Curious George,” he has sprung some quite peculiar events on us before he would leave us alone and let the Rooster take over. However, we must be thankful for the Monkey, but it’s time for him to go. Happy New Year of the Rooster. May all be blessed with good health, and may all your wishes come true.