First Morning or Head Day is reserved for the nuclear family, that is, the husband’s household. Immediate family members get together and celebrate with the husband’s parents. A younger brother, if the parents are not alive, will visit his older sibling. Faraway sons and daughters journey to be with their parents on this day. Children anticipate a ritual called Mung Tuoi, or the well wishing on the achievement of one more year to one’s life. With both arms folded in front of their chest in respect, they thank their grandparents for their birth and upbringing.
Reciprocally, the grandparents will impart words of advice or wisdom to their grandchildren, encouraging them to study seriously, to live in harmony with others. The promises made by the children are similar to New Year’s resolutions made during the western New Year. Adults will make silent promises to themselves to improve their lives, habits and relationships in the coming year. The children accept small gifts, usually crisp bills. Ideally, part of the gifts will be saved for future “investment,” and part spent for Tet amusements. The words on the little red envelope in which the bill may be tucked read: Respectful wishes for the New Year. When there was a king ruling Vietnam, the mandarins of the royal court formally wished the King and Queen, “Happiness as vast as the southern sea; longevity as lasting as the southern mountains.” Each trade and professional guild in Vietnam has a founder or guardian spirit and on this or one of the next several days, the craft workers will make offerings to their guild ancestor.
The family displays the offerings of food on the altar table for the first meal for the ancestors since they have returned to the world of the living. The head of the family, dressed in fresh clothes, steps respectfully in front of the family altar and presents the offerings of food, liquor, cigarettes, betel fixings, flowers and paper gold and silver. He lights three sticks of incense, kneels, joins hands in front of his chest, bows his head and prays. The names of the deceased of the family up to the fifth generation are whispered as they are invited to participate in the feast prepared for them.
After the ceremony, the entire family sits down to enjoy the meal typically consisting of steamed chicken, bamboo shoot soup, banh chung and fresh fruits. They reminisce with their ancestors.
The Vietnamese do not say “celebrate” when speaking of Tet; the words “to eat” are used as in the expression, “Will you eat Tet with your family?” or “Where will you eat Tet this year?” It does not refer to the filling of one’s stomach, although in the old days, when hunger was a constant problem, Tet time was a time of plenty during which one could eat one’s full. “To eat” here means more to be nourished by, or to partake in the mutual communion with others, a spiritual eating or being nourished.
There is a Vietnamese saying related to ancestor worship: “Trees have roots; water has a source; when drinking from the spring, one must remember the source.” Thanks are offered to those ancestors who labored long ago to dig irrigation channels and remove mountains for this generation to have an easier life. The present is only one link in the cycle of coming back to the past as one looks to the future.
While living in Saigon what did you and your family do on the First Day of Tet?
What memories do you have of First Day?
Were you or your family invited to someone’s home on First Day? If so, what do you remember about your First Day visit to their home.
As always, you are welcome to leave your comments below.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!