Cung chúc tân xuân! Happy New Year from VNHELP! The Lunar New Year officially kicks off on February 10 this Year of the Water Snake. We hope your preparations for this joyous holiday are going swimmingly. 😉
For new celebrants of the Lunar New Year, there are quite a few traditions and customs you may be curious about. In between monitoring projects and reading poverty assessments, we’ve managed to scrounge together a list of 10 things to know about Tet for you. Enjoy!
1. “Tết” is what people of Vietnamese origin call Lunar New Year. The day of Tet changes every year because it is based on the phases of the sun and moon. Tet usually falls sometime between January and February. In 2012, it was on January 23rd. In 2014, it will be on January 31.
2. There are 12 animals of the zodiac, and the animal for the year changes based on the rotation of the zodiac. 2013 is the year of the snake. The snake is the 6th animal of the zodiac, and people born in the year of the snake are said to be intuitive and thoughtful, but also very rational and charming in a mysterious way. VNHELP friends born in the year of the snake, how true do you think this is? Fun fact: the biggest difference between the Chinese zodiac cycle and the Vietnamese zodiac cycle is that the Vietnamese zodiac substitutes the cat for the rabbit.
3. Most people know about the cycle of zodiac animals, but fewer people realize that the element changes ever year too. As mentioned above, 2013 is the year of the Water Snake. Water is the most “yin” of all elements–the darkest of the dark elements. Do not conflate dark with evil though! Water can represent intelligence, wisdom, flexibility, and strength. The other elements are wood, fire, earth, and metal. The next time the Year of the Snake comes around, in 2025, it will be the Year of the Wood Snake.
4. Tet is often considered the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture. Celebrations can last a day or three, but more often that they last for 10 days to a full two weeks. If you’re a traveler who wants to visit a big city in Vietnam during Tet, you may want to shift your plans. Many people go back to their hometowns and villages for Tet, while some businesses just shut down for the celebrations. With expanding consumption and capitalism in Vietnam, however, this may be changing in the future.
5. Pay up your debt and look your best! You want to start off the new year on the best terms possible, right? In Vietnamese tradition, people try to pay back all their debts before the previous year ends to head off into the new year with a clean slate. There’s also always a flurry of shopping going on.
6. During Tet, red and yellow flood the streets. In many festive Vietnamese occasions you will see homes, cities, and streets awash in red and yellow. Why? In Vietnamese and many Chinese-influenced cultures, red symbolizes good luck. Yellow is a sign of wealth prosperity. Who doesn’t want good luck and prosperity?
7. The lowdown on li xi: Tet is one of the best holidays for kids because they receive li xi from their elders. Li xi are red envelopes stuffed with a crisp new bill. Now here’s the tricky part: when do you stop receiving li xi and start being the one who gives them out? After a discussion in the VNHELP office, it seems like the custom differs between families. In some families, you are expected to start giving out li xi once you are an upstanding member of society (in other words, once you’ve finished school and found a stable job). In other families, you don’t have to give them out till you’re married.
8. Don’t forget your ancestors! You wouldn’t be here without them, right? In Vietnam, aside from celebrations, time is set aside during Tet to pay respect to living elders and to visit the tombs of your progenitors.
9. Superstitions you may want to observe if you happen to be superstitious yourself: 1) Make sure to clean your house from top to bottom, but don’t sweep things out the door or the luck will fly out with it! 2) Don’t cut your hair during Tet. Just don’t. 3) Set off some fireworks to drive the evil spirits away. But be careful when handling any pyrotechnics! The last thing you want is to start a fire or cause an injury during what should be a joyous time.
10. Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, Tet is a time to let loose a little and just have fun. But at its core, its a time to celebrate the coming of spring and life–a time meant for family. So be sure to spend a lot of time of your family, put away past grudges, and show the people around you that you love them. It just so happens that Valentine’s Day follows four days after the start of Tet, so it’s the perfect time to spread convivial feelings all around.
Top photo by fender_DT (Flickr / Creative Commons)