Sacred Texts  Asia  Index  Previous  Next 

The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

The Meaning and Importance of TET

TET is actually a three day holiday which marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, which synchronizes with the Chinese New Year and is closely tied to the Spring Equinox. To many this means the annual awakening of nature. 1966, for example, was the year of the Horse, and 1965 was the year of the Snake. Each year of the 12-year cycle has an animal name. While the Vietnamese celebrate TET, the Chinese in Thailand, Vietnam, etc., celebrate the new year with many festivities and ancient religious rites.

Due to religious beliefs, age-old traditions and customs, TET is the single most important holiday season in Vietnamese life. The first visitor of the new year is vitally important to them as is the urgent necessity to avoid anything unpleasant or sick for fear that such will

p. 79

be repeated throughout the year. Because o long Chinese influence and Confucian teachings, many of the customs and practices are familiar to the students of Chinese culture. For instance, this is the time when all debts must be cleared up, when ancestral graves must be visited and cleaned up; when ancestor family altars must receive special attention with incense, prayers and flowers as well as food offerings.

To many of the people in this beautiful land, TET is the opportunity to renew the communion of the dead with those of the future through the veneration offered by those presently living. It is a renewing of spirit and body, a settling of old accounts, financial and spiritual. TET is the time when families want to be together much as do Americans at Christmas. The longtime Chinese occupation planted the belief that at this time the "God" or "Spirit" of the Hearth must go and render account of the family to the Heavenly Emperor in the Jade Palace. To make sure that the report will be sweet, some families place honey or other sweets on their paper Gods of the hearth or kitchen before they are burned and sent on their way. To be sure of a good report for the home, gifts of fruit, a new paper coat and a paper carp (sacred fish) for riding are added as inducements, while in the delta, paper animals for burning may be added.

Sometimes at TET the number of fires in the shopping and industrial areas have caused the remark "Someone is trying to get insurance to settle accounts". While firecrackers, and other explosives were used in peacetime to drive away evil or dangerous spirits, these are now strictly forbidden. One Celebration almost resulted in tragic deaths for many when illegal firecrackers were exploded near tense combat troops. But so that past, present and future may be joyfully united, the year-end ceremony of sacrifices still occurs as an invitation to the deceased to take part in the feasting.

Celebration continues for three days, ending the evening of the third day when all ancestral souls who have returned to the family for the occasion, must depart for their world. It is then that artificial silver and gold paper money is burned by the family. This allows the departing "ghosts" to hire sampans to transport them across the river that divides "spirit heaven" from the world of the living.

The Vietnamese TET NGUYEN DAN combines many of the secular features of the American Christmas holidays with religious features observed in All Souls' Day, etc., with animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism; each contributing sometimes conflicting features and ideas, but all combined to make a valid holiday season for our Vietnamese allies.

When the "hearth spirits", or "gods" are absent to make an annual report to the Jade Emperor, the Vietnamese peasant wants protection from evil spirits, etc. As a consequence, Buddhism plays an important role during the three day TET holiday period. The villagers feel that protection is gained by the special preparation of a long bamboo pole. The pole is stripped of all leaves but the very top ones and a red eight-sided paper, bearing the symbols of Buddha's Eightfold Path of righteousness, is then attached. This pole, which may also have some areca nuts and betel leaves tied to it for the good spirits, is planted in their yards. Sometimes small bells which tinkle in the breeze and frighten evil spirits away, or a small plaited bamboo square symbolizes barriers which they cannot overcome are used. A small bronze gong, which serves as an emblem of the "Lord Buddha" may also be found attached to these poles.

Children are sometimes told the story of Buddha's clever victory over demon spirits. These stories are repeated year by year and become a part of the heritage given to so many Vietnamese children that animism is quite evident in much of Vietnam. Briefly told, it seems that the land of Vietnam was being overrun by terrifying demons. The inhabitants were frightened, helpless, and always fleeing. But Buddha arrived in answer to their prayers to save them from their desperate situation.

Buddha sought to purchase some Vietnamese soil, but could buy only as much as could be covered by his cloak, for which he promised precious stones and many jewels. The demons, being quite greedy, agreed. Buddha then backed his demand for the departure of the demon spirits by throwing down his cloak which grew in size until it covered the land. He then turned the land over to the people. The raising of the simple bamboo poles about their homes on the 23rd day of the 12th month of each lunar year is in remembrance of Buddha's power to deliver from evil. While Buddha may have this power in the minds of many Vietnamese, Buddhists from some countries would find this completely unacceptable. Whether or not you agree with the legend, the point is to remember that many of the ethnic Vietnamese do.

Naturally TET also is the high point of the year for foods, but a description of the more popular ones would take a number of articles,

p. 80

and even then the sight and scent could not be conveyed to give adequate representation.

Next: The Dragon in Vietnam