The festival which best epitomizes Vietnam’s cultural identity is Vietnamese New Year or Tet. Popular festivals play a major role as mirror and guardian of a nation’s cultural identity. In this aspect, the festival which best epitomizes Vietnam’s cultural identity is Tet.
Although endowed with honorable credentials, the New Year by Solar Calendar has not succeeded in becoming accredited in Vietnam, at least not in the countryside. People pay it polite homage countryside but reserve their heart and soul for their own traditional Vietnamese New Year.
“Tet” is a word of Chinese Origin. It is the phonetic deformation of “Tiet”, a Sino Vietnamese term which means “Joint of a bamboo stern” and in a wider sense, the “beginning of a period of the year”. The passage from one period to the next may cause a meteorological disturbance (heat, rain, mist) that must be exercised by ritual sacrifices and festivities. Thus, there are many Tets throughout the year (Mid-autumn Vietnamese New Year, Cold Food Vietnamese New Year, etc.). The most significant of all is “Vietnamese New Year Ca” (“Big Vietnamese New Year” or simply “Vietnamese New Year”), which marks the Lunar New Year.
Vietnamese New Year occurs somewhere in the last ten days of January or the first twenty days of February, nearly halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox. Although the Lunar New Year is observed throughout East Asia, each country celebrates Vietnamese New Year in its own way in conformity with its own national psyche and cultural conditions.
For the Vietnamese people, Vietnamese New Year is like a combination of Western Saint Sylvester, New Year’s Day, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. It is the festival of Purity and Renewal.
Nature always renews its youth, returning to its primary purity and freshness. People, who are part of Nature, follow the same course.
Vietnamese New Year, the first day of spring, carries with it all the rebirth connotations that Easter has in the West. In the course of this period of universal renewal and rejuvenation, the Vietnamese feel the spring sap welling up within them. This feeling has given rise to special customs: every deed during the three days of Vietnamese New Year should be well intentioned and finely realized, for it symbolizes and forecasts actions during the coming twelve months. One abstains from getting cross, from using bad language. The most shrewish mother-in-law smokes the pipe of peace with her daughter-in-law. Quarrelling husbands and wives bury their hatchets. Children promise to be good, grown-ups hand the children gifts, which are often coins wrapped in scarlet paper since red is the color of luck. The children are happy to get new clothes. Beggars are given alms. The “new” world must be the best of the worlds. Once the holy resting time is over, activities resume with a new frame of mind after inaugurating ceremonies: “inauguration of the seals” for civil servants, “inauguration of the pen-brush” for scholars and students, “inauguration of the shop” for traders.
For the Vietnamese, Vietnamese New Year brings a message of confidence in humanity; it brings redemption, hope and optimism.