In Honor of Lunar New Year/Tet...
In honor of Lunar New Year/Tet, we asked our staff:
- What does Lunar New Year and/or Tet mean to you?
- How do you celebrate Lunar New Year/Tet: Are there special foods you eat? Special traditions that you observe? Special clothes you wear?
- What is your favorite memory from celebrations in the past?
For those of us on staff who don't traditionally celebrate Lunar New Year or Tet (the ethnic Hmong, Mien, Tai Lue, and Cambodian Americans), this was a real eye opener. Read on...
Hmmm, what does it mean to me? It represents certain cultural things that are embedded in my consciousness.
Everyone gets a year older. It’s a birthday for all, because traditionally, we don’t celebrate individual birthdays.
(It's everybody's birthday! - Photo courtesy of Phuong Do)
There are superstitions we follow:
Before New Year’s day, the house must be swept and cleaned to get rid of all the old. On New Year’s eve, Buddhists have special prayer ceremonies to honor the ancestors, which are normally done between 11:00 PM and midnight. Everyone goes to the temple to celebrate with special prayers from the monks. It’s also a place and time for young people to check each other out. :-)
On New Year’s day, we sleep in, as guests are not expected until later in the day. It’s a day that will define how the rest of the year turns out, so there shouldn’t be any arguments, conflicts, or anything that is negative in your house on that day. No sweeping, cleaning, or throwing out trash, as it would mean you’re throwing away your fortunes. With the advent of the phone and now e-mail, people are leaving well wishes via phone and e-mail. People go out in the late morning to the afternoon to visit family and friends...and sometimes the temple if they didn’t go the night before. Everyone greets each other with “chúc mừng năm mới” followed by wishing for prosperity. Children get red envelops with money inside.
When I was a kid, I’d get a new outfit and it would match my younger sister’s (who is 4 years younger than me). I had a black purse that would get stuffed with red envelopes, and I would give all the envelopes to my Mom. She must have saved it to buy my outfit for next year and my school uniform, because I don’t remember ever having any of that cash. Although we were living in Vientiane, Laos, the New Year always felt very much “Vietnamese” because of the large Vietnamese community there. The festivities would start days before and go on for days after.
My fondest memories of Tet in Laos are watching the people in the neighborhood prepare for Tet: digging a pit to roast a pig, gathering Phrynium placentarium leaves (lá dong) and soaking them to make wrapping for the sticky rice. People would come together with prepared sweet rice, pork fat, and yellow beans and sit around wrapping the rice into squares (banh chung) and cyclinders (banh day). Click here for folk tales about how these cakes came to being. To cook the cakes, there would be a couple of large oil drums - normally used to catch rain water – placed on top of a pit that is rigged to put wood under. People would take turns watching and turning the cakes boiling inside the drums all night long.
(This photo shows the Phyrnium leaves. - Photo courtesy of firstname.lastname@example.org at flickr.com)
When we were resettled in Colorado, the New Year was cold and most of the time it would snow. We’d go to the Japanese temple in downtown Denver because there were no other temples around until later in the '80s when the community starting building our own temples.
(People reading their fortunes at the temple. - Photo courtesy of Phuong Do)
As I got older and often lived half way around the world or across the country from Denver, where my parents live, Tet only happened occasionally for me, but my Mom carries out the rituals every year. She makes huge amounts of food for ancestor offerings, visits her friends, goes to the temple and gives money, and calls her mom and siblings in France. So, when I do come home, I become an observer and a photo archivist of Tet.
(My Mom all dressed up and my Dad is in whatever he has on..like the gym pants! - Photo courtesy of Phuong Do)
(My Mom reading her fortune at the temple. - Photo courtesy of Phuong Do)
Lunar New Year is a chance to visit friends and family and send them well-wishes for the New Year. When I was a kid, it was also a time to play gambling games like bau cua ca cop. But the best thing of all as a kid was getting crisp bills in little red envelopes with gold embossing – but you had to earn it by crafting a personal new year’s message to the giver. Certain flowers are a must: like mustard yellow chrysanthemums and pink cherry blossoms. Around Tet is when my parents waxed nostalgic about Vietnam the most – I get the sense that the whole country just shuts down for days and everyone parties.
It’s also a time to eat lots of special New Year's food: banh chung and banh tet are dense sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves, candied fruit like coconut shreds, lotus seeds and soursop, and watermelon seeds dyed red. There’s also a dish of stewed pork and hard-boiled eggs that was cooked days in advance. The idea was that you weren’t supposed to spend New Year’s or the days afterward cooking – so people cooked a big batch that would last through the week.
One of my favorite memories is gambling with my family for quarters. Also, my Mom was never really into Christmas trees, but she liked to bring in a cherry blossom branch in full bloom and tape money envelopes to it.
For me, Lunar New Year is all about family and great food. It’s a time to reflect on the past year, and cross your fingers for good fortune in the coming year. I didn’t really believe in the whole Lunar zodiac thing until last year. Apparently, it is bad luck for you when it’s your animal’s year. Two years ago, in 2009 – it was the year of the Ox, and I just had a terrible, terrible year. I don’t know if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it certainly turned me into a believer. The next time the Year of the Ox rolls around, in the year 2021—expect to find me hiding in a box somewhere.
I usually spend Lunar New Year trying to explain to folks why I don’t celebrate Tet (because I’m not Vietnamese). Besides that though, we generally eat vegetarian meals for the first 3 days of the New Year. I guess it’s bad luck to start the new year by killing an animal to eat. A lot of this is influenced by the fact that my grandma and parents are Buddhist. It’s strange because there were folks around me that would get dressed up, but I think I’ve become too Americanized. I don’t even feel a need or desire to dress up. Plus, in my household, work is evenly divided—so it’s not my Mom and sister who are taking care of everything. We all take part in cleaning and cooking and doing prep work.
My first New Year after leaving for college was probably the most special. It was very warming to be able to come back home and spend that time with my family. Now that I’m on my own, I still try to hold on to some of the traditions like cleaning every corner of my apartment. A good way to get started on my spring cleaning!