Bamboo to measure the year

No.1, Vol.2, Jan 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

T he Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday, which starts at midnight on 22 January this year and lasts for several days, is usually called Tết but actually there are about a dozen Tếts a year. Tết, according to culture researcher Huu Ngoc, in his book Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture*, is a ‘phonetic deformation of the sino-Vietnamese “tiết”, which designates the joints of a bamboo stem’. The passage from one meteorological period to the next may cause disturbance, such as heat, rain or mist. These have to be ‘exorcised by means of ritual sacrifices and festivities’. The precise split between one year and the next occurs at the end of the last day, or season, in fact, and beginning of the first, but the ‘passage’ referred to above can take longer.
The first Tết in a year, a lunar year, is called Tết Cả (Cả literally means the biggest, most important), in its full name and in everyday language. Another name for it is Tết Nguyên Đán. (Nguyên Đán is, literally, the first morning.)
On the 23rd of the last moon the Kitchen God(s), two men and a woman, sometimes thought of as one, go to heaven to report on the good and bad deeds of the household. From the 23rd, the word ‘Tết’ may be included in the date – ‘Tết the 23rd’, ‘Tết the 24th’ and so on. The last day is always called ‘Tết the 30th’. The first half of the night of the 30th is considered the darkest moment of the year; hence the expression ‘pitch-black like the 30th night’. Male tigers, seen as the darkest power and most fearful might, are called ‘Ông (Mr) 30th’. Beyond the 30th midnight, the days are ‘Tết the 1st’, ‘Tết the 2nd’ and so on until at least ‘Tết the 7th’.
After Tết Nguyên Đán, in temporal order come ‘Tết Hàn Thực’, the Cold Food Festival, the 3rd of the third moon, ‘Tết Đoan Ngọ’ [to call for people to kill insects that are harmful to crops], Double Fifth Festival, the 5th of the fifth moon, ‘Tết Trung Thu’ (literally the Tết of the ‘middle of autumn’), which is also called the Full Moon Festival, the 15th of the eighth moon, ‘Tết Cơm Mới’ (‘cơm’ means ‘rice’ and ‘mới’ means ‘new’), the New Rice Tết, either the 1st or the 10th of the tenth moon, depending on the geographical area.
There are also Tếts nine days and ten days after the New Year, on the seventh day of the seventh moon and on the ninth day of the ninth moon. There are Tếts on the full-moon days of the first moon, seventh moon and tenth moon.
[It appears that though a Tết is essentially a node or break in a continuity, it can be named a ‘festival’ because its celebration is at least partially festive.]
Tết Đoan Ngọ happens around the summer solstice, the new-rice Tết prior to or following the winter solstice and the mid-autumn festival (also called Full Moon Festival), falls in the middle of autumn. Tết Nguyên Đán, marks the beginning of spring.
Historically, Tết Nguyên Đán is an agricultural festival, a farmers’ holiday.
Lunar New Year is celebrated in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. China, Korea and Japan abrogated the celebration when they adopted the Gregorian calendar. In Vietnam, there were suggestions [in the early 1950s] that Tết and the lunar calendar be abolished. The President, Ho Chi Minh, and the public generally disagreed with these suggestions. Though Vietnamese people have followed the Gregorian calendar for daily business for centuries, they have never downplayed Tết. In some parts of the country, especially in big cities, people may have neglected the Cold Food Festival, the New Rice Festival or the Insect Festival, yet, from the countryside to the city, the Lunar New Year and the Full Moon Festival are still enthusiastically celebrated.
Lunar New Year dates to around 100 BC, during the Han Dynasty in China, and its origin is a mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese cultural characteristics.
In folklore, on Tết the 23rd the universe dies temporarily. The Kitchen God(s) ride carp to the heavens, leaving the earthly world unsupervised and unprotected. Offerings are made to the Kitchen God(s) before they take off. Carp are bought to set free in ponds, rivers and lakes.
Also on Tết the 23rd, people plant cây nêu, a bamboo pole about five metres in length, on top of which hangs a bamboo hoop. The hoop holds clay gongs, carp and paper gold ingots. On the ground, traced with slaked lime, is a bow and arrow to frighten away evil spirits. Cây nêu is ‘the tree of the universe’. For the society to co-exist in harmony with the universe, after the Kitchen God Tết, farmers stop farming, and in the feudal society of the past, government offices were all closed.

A new Kitchen God or Gods, or the renewed one(s), descend(s) to the world to take charge of the household, take care of the kitchen and the property upon the arrival of the New Year. At midnight on New Year’s Eve people arrange a tray of offerings in the front yard to welcome the deity(ies). The earthen tripod stoves in the kitchen are replaced with new ones.
Ancestor-worship is the fundamental belief of Vietnamese wet-rice farmers. As the last moon comes, people sweep and redecorate and burn incense on the graves of their relatives to invite their spirits home for the New Year. Together with the tray of offerings to the new Kitchen God(s) put outside at New Year’s Eve Midnight, a tray of food goes on the family altar inside for the ancestors. The three or five first days of the New Year are feasts for the ancestors. After the third or the fifth day, the family holds a ceremony in which they offer another banquet to and burn votive money for the spirits and see them off back to their eternal world.
From New Year’s Eve Midnight, life starts to resume and by the 7th it has completely recovered. On the 7th the cây nêu is taken down to mark the end of Tết. In the royal court and (feudal) government offices, seal-opening ceremonies were held.
Tếts are annual, and another type of celebration, lễ hội, may be annual or not. Lễ means ritual and hội means celebration. Most lễ hộis take place in spring, following Tết.
Each region has its own system of lễ hộis, which are celebrated in that region only, while Tếts are celebrated nationally.
Both Tếts and lễ hộis have two parts, ritual and the eating, festive fun part, according to Tran Ngoc Them in his book Discovering Vietnamese Culture. Tết is time for each family to pay tribute to its ancestors while lễ hội is for each region or community to pay tribute to various deities and those who have done great things for the region or community such as heroes or founders of crafts. The festive part of Tết is more about eating while the festive part of lễ hội is more about playing. The Vietnamese say ‘ăn Tết’ (literally to eat Tết) and ‘chơi hội’ (literally to play at a festival).
A Tết is within each family while lễ hội is in public space for people near and far. Tết is to maintain family hierarchy while lễ hội is to build up horizontal relationships among members of a community and connect couples to form new families.n
Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture, by Huu Ngoc, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2008, and Vietnamese Culture, Research and Reflection, by Tran Quoc Vuong, Văn Học (Literature) Publishers, 2003.
Note: How the calendar is adjusted to align with the moon is comphicated. What is most noticeable is that some years have more than 12 months.

Above: Women meet for Tết in Cochin China, and no mistaking on the faces the varieties of repugnance toward the camera and perhaps beyond. Right: A Tết dragon procession in the colonial period.
Photos: Collection of Philippe

Opposite: Narcissus, Tết flower.
A photo in the early 20th century from the collection of Nguyen Anh Tuan

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