The Year of the Cat and The Year of the Rabbit

Today, 03-February-2011,  is the beginning of the Lunar New Year, the most important event of the year in Asian Culture, most significantly, Vietnamese.  All people are off from work as businesses and schools are closed for this day.

Tet Nguyen Dan literally means "the first morning of the first day of the new period."

Vietnam's version of the Lunar New Year is celebrated now worldwide by the Vietnamese People to celebrate The Year of the Cat this 2011 year.  It is as an all-in-one Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Halloween of Western Culture. 

Along with many other Asian Cultures, both the Chinese and the Vietnamese, recognize both the Gregorian and Lunar Solar Calendar systems as part of their cultural tradition. Tracking the New Moon varies year to year and can begin anytime between January and mid-February.  As neighboring countries, both China and Vietnam celebrate "The Chinese New Year" and "Tet Nguyen Dan" on the same day. This year for the Chinese it is The Year of the Rabbit.

The traditional celebrations can last from one day when parades and traditional dances are performed to an entire week.    

People of Asian Cultures often return to the Homeland, if at all possible, to be with family and friends during the New Year Holiday to pay homage as a group to their ancestors by praying at churches or pagodas.  Buddhists go to a favorite Pagoda and Catholics go to pre-midnight Mass.

Beginning in the Old Time, for one or two days preceding The Lunar New Year, each family prepared the squares of Bauh Chung for ancestral offerings around a warm fire when parents looked upon this time to teach their children the oral histories and folklore stories in preparation for them, in turn, to pass down to their children generation-ally.

During The Lunar New Year, the Banh Chung, is the must have food to be placed upon the altars of the ancestors constructed  in the home or grave sites as symbolic gifts along with flowers and incense. 

The night before, families perform rituals such as burning incense to invite the spirits of their ancestors to join them.  Interestingly, it is also the time "to bid the Ong Tao" (the Kitchen God) goodbye for a week, who then returns to Heaven to inform on the behavior of the Family during the previous year to the Jade Emperor.

Although the Vietnamese and Chinese celebrate The Lunar New Year separately both in Vietnam and China as well as in various Western communities, families believe that their activities during the Holiday must revolve around joy and happiness to bring forth good luck for the incoming New Year.

Preparations include cleaning each home, top to bottom, even painting sometimes, in anticipation of Spring; as "Tet" is a celebration of Rebirth.  Settling old debts and disputes are customary and everyone pledges to behave well and work hard in the New Year.  In like Western holidays people usually buy new clothes to usher in the New Year as well.

Houses are decorated with a Cay Neu, a small bamboo tree, planted in front of the house with Moa Mai, a yellow blossom to represent Spring and red banners across the front door to ward off evil spirits from entering the home.

No cleaning is allowed such as sweeping or mopping during "Tet" as that could "sweep away good luck" and no digging or disturbance of the earth is allowed so "the ground and nature can enjoy "Tet", too!

Adults give children decorated red envelopes called Li Xi with Lucky Money, always in even denominations as odd numbers are considered unlucky.  This symbolizes Happy Birthday to children as well as Good Luck because The New Year is also everyone's birthday! 

When it is time for Le Tru Tich, the official start of "Tet", on the stroke of midnight,  people fill the street in celebration and make as much noise as possible with fireworks, drums, bells, gongs, and banging sticks to usher out the spirits of the old year.

It is critical that the first person to enter a person's home be someone who has enjoyed good luck in the previous year as it is believed that this first-to-arrive person's Karma can influence the family's fortune in the upcoming year. 

Lucky foods that must be prepared include the aforementioned Banh Chung which is steamed sticky rice cakes with pork stuffing wrapped in banana leaves; Mut which is candied fruit; Keo Dua which is coconut candy and Keo Me Xung which is peanut brittle with sesame seeds.  Many people travel to the Vietnamese communities within their city to purchase and enjoy these traditional Vietnamese delicacies. 

On the first day of "Tet", whist bearing gift's, one's parents and close friends are visited.  On the second day, one's in-law's and other close friends are visited and on the third day, distant relatives are visited. 

 On the 7th day, after the 1st day, the Cay Neu is taken down and Dragon Processions stalk the streets to scare off evil spirits.  Parade Dances include mimicking  the Mau Lan who is widely referred to as a unicorn but looks like a cross between a lion and a dragon.  The Dragon is the symbol of strength in Vietnamese culture.

In New Orleans, for instance, amongst the Dragon Parades, there is "The Parade of The Small Dragons" for which the children proudly prepare all year.

"Tet Nguyen Dan" has many historically steeped traditions that are  heavily based on history but has evolved into modern culture that incorporate new elements and produces new traditions so that other Southeast Asians such as the Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong can celebrate together; although separate from the Chinese New Year Celebrations.

Young people today are proud to carry the torch passed from the older generations which is quite appropriate.  The Lunar New Year is a celebration of Spring, Birth, and  Renewal" as well as an international Vietnamese identity that continues a long and proud tradition for Vietnamese all over the world.

Chuc mang nam moi!  Happy Tet!