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Celebrating Tet: Tradition Analysis

Advertisements on television these days continue to encourage individuals to eat dinner together as a family because this is what fosters a sense of togetherness that will keep the family together well into the future. It seems that the American culture is such that the individual members of a family are no longer accustomed to eating together with each other at the same table. Parents are busy working hard at their jobs either working late or working second shifts or at their second jobs and children are often busy being involved with school or sports related activities that keep everyone apart during the evening hours. The only time they really seem to come together is during the weekends sometimes and on holidays when they are forced to because everything else is closed. This is sad for me to see because I am not used to so much separateness between people who live in the same family. Some of my most cherished childhood memories center around my family’s celebration of Tet, what is called in America the Vietnamese New Year. This is a celebration held every year for about three days when the beginning of a new season of growing and living is welcomed with joy and togetherness. While the responsibilities of maturing have taken some of the magic out of the holiday for me, even when I can find a way to make it home, the rituals of my childhood celebrations sustain me still when times get bad.

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In Vietnam, my family would begin preparing for Tet a couple of weeks before the actual day of the new year. I remember being dressed neatly and being taken by the hand by my mother as my family went out to participate in the customary shopping that was as necessary to the holiday as the symbolism it brought. It was important to look neat because everyone was at the market shopping during this time of the year. It was a great deal like what Americans see in the malls in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, but our focus was somewhat different. We would walk through the colorful, crowded streets seeking the new decorations my mother wanted for our home, the special foods she wanted to make for our guests and to pay the grocer and any others we still owed money to. My mother always made sure I saw her do this because she said it was important to start each new year an a fresh foot, with no debt and no hardship. At the same time, though, we would go through the marketplace as if we had all the money in the world to spend. Mother would take a long time to pick out my new clothes for the day of celebration and I marveled at the brilliant colors and the smooth feeling of the silks and embroidery that she would select. It was important that we bought enough because we would always be expecting many visitors during the holiday and none of the shops would be open to buy more if more people arrived. It was bad luck to run out of food for our guests and my mother put a lot of importance on this part of the holiday. I loved how well we were always able to take good care of the people who came to visit. As the holiday got closer and closer, my sisters and I would take turns in the kitchen as we started preparing the traditional foods. I remember being very small the first time I had to watch the kitchen fire, but my sister sat up with me and told me stories about the times when my uncle used to visit for Tet and would be so funny making fun of the people he met on his travels.

The traditional food of Tet cannot be replaced by the traditional hams and turkeys that the people of America serve during their Christmas holiday, but our reactions to the familiar smells and tastes are similar. Banh chung was the most important dish for us to get right. It is a kind of sticky rice with meat filling that is wrapped in leaves in a neat package. Mother would take great care to choose only the best ingredients to make our banh chung and the smell of the pork cooking always made my mouth water. This is a difficult thing to cook because it has to be boiled for eight hours and the temperature has to stay the same all the time. This meant that there always had to be someone around to watch the fire and we would take turns making sure everything went right. This was not like taking turns to see who would clean the dishes, it was usually fun because more than one of us would watch at a time and we would have so much fun telling the stories of the ancestors while the food cooked. We also always made a lot of extra banh chung because it was expected that we leave some for the ancestors and give some to other families who would come visiting. Other special foods we ate during this time were roasted watermelon seeds, pickled onions and leeks and dried candied fruits that were a particular treat during Tet only. I have noticed that the tradition of preparing special foods and giving them away are important parts of American traditions, too. Just because the types of foods are different doesn’t mean the feelings are different. When I see a look of absolute pleasure cross the face of someone enjoying a traditional ham dinner at Christmas now I think back to the times when I had that same look while enjoying the traditional foods I made with my family during Tet.

My favorite part of Tet was the first day of the celebration when everything was reserved for just the family to be together. I loved how it was always just our family on this day with very few visitors. But family meant that everyone we were related to, sometimes even from very far away, would come to visit. This was what made this time so special for me because it was the one day of the entire celebration that I could get to know my relatives again. My father would usually make a big deal about coming into the house just after midnight on Tet because the first person to enter the house on the new year was believed to set the luck for the whole family for the rest of the year. One year was special. I had just won an award at school for spelling and my father allowed me to be the one to bring good luck for the family. It was the most special feeling for me to be responsible for the luck of my family and I felt especially proud whenever something good happened for any of us for the rest of the year. I still remember the excitement of receiving my red envelope from my parents, which was a lot like children opening their Christmas presents in America. I would wake up in the morning and very carefully dress myself in the beautiful new clothes my mother had provided for me especially for this occasion. The feel of the heavy silk draping over my shoulders always made me feel very special and grown up. Then I would run out to greet my parents and grandparents along with my sisters and brothers with the special Tet greeting that wished health and good luck to them for the coming year. We would take care to make special offerings of fruit and other food to the altar of the ancestors as well. This was our way of remembering the people who came before us and who contributed to our well-being now. After this, we would get our envelopes. These would be filled with money that we were able to spend ourselves. I remember always spending a part of the day looking at the different things we had hung from the new year tree that symbolized good luck and what we hoped for the future.

Tet was a very special tradition in our family and in our community when I was a child. Much of how I identify myself as a person comes from these kinds of traditions that I shared with my family. The warmth of togetherness, the reminder of family and the importance of doing things together made me feel very safe and secure. I knew I had a place in the world and it was there, with the people I loved best. Tet is not the same anymore though. As I grew older, it became necessary for me to go away to school, far, far away. Now I live in America and it is not always possible for me to go home for Tet celebrations. I am not the only one who has this problem. So many of my family members have gone on to study in other places of the world and have taken jobs in companies that do not share our traditions. It helps that here the people celebrate a similar tradition in Christmas, but so many of the simple things I remember that made the holiday so special are missing. The stories and the memories of the past are what gave the holidays their special feeling which is not as rich now that they are missing the rituals of my home.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Celebrating Tet: Tradition Analysis'. 9 November.

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