Saigon (MF) - When the clock strikes midnight on January 27th, the first day of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, millions of Vietnamese will exchange toasts of good wishes for the coming year of the Hog.
The greetings are familiar and always concern the well-being of the family, the focal point of Vietnamese life. "May I wish you," so goes the toast to the head of the family, "nothing but prosperity in your endeavors. May you have a son at the beginning of this year and a daughter at the end. May your fortunes increase tenfold and may peace and happiness be with you and your family..."
"Tet Nguyen Dan" or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, begins this year on midnight January 27th, I971 and the festivities will last three days. The traditional Vietnamese calendar runs in cycles of twelve years. A genie, in the form of an animal figure, dominates each year. They are, in the following order: Ty (mouse); Suu (buffalo); Dan (tiger); Mao (cat); Thin (dragon); Ty (snake); Ngo (horse); Mui (goat); Than (monkey); Dau (cock); Tuat (dog); and Hoi (hog). As the old year gives way to the new, the ruling genie quietly bows out to the next. This coming year will be the year of the Hog.
On Tet, the home is brightly lit and the family altar resplendent with flowers, fruits, cakes and sweets to welcome the new genie on this festive night. It used to be that firecrackers erupted on the exact moment of transition, as is the custom in many western countries. In Vietnam, they serve an additional purpose -- to chase out the evil spirit -- but since the infamous Tet attack of three years ago, the use of firecrackers was banned by the authorities.
At dawn, the family sits down to a banquet in honor of the ancestors to whom they pay their respects by ritual bows before the family shrine. When the meal is finished, it's time to dress in one's best fineries and meet the parents and grand-parents to wish them luck and happiness in the coming year. The youngsters especially look forward to this ceremony as each one of them receives a small sum of money wrapped in the traditional "red envelope".
It is an ancient belief in Vietnam that fortune or misfortune which occurs on New Year's Day sets the pattern for the rest of the year. The morning of Tet is of particular importance. The character of the first visitor to the home will leave his imprint on the family for the rest of the year. This ancient custom is called "Xong Nha". If the visitor is good, kind and honest, the family is in luck. But if he or she happens to be a rather shady type, the year is off to a bad start. It is not unusual in many homes to firmly lock the gates and wait until a few minutes after midnight to admit a favored friend as the "first guest in the New Year" who, in the meantime, has been walking around the block, waiting for his cue to make his "guest appearance".
Another important aspect of Tet is the family visit to the Pagoda or Church to pray for good fortune and happiness. The remainder of the holidays is filled with visits to friends and relatives, family games and just relaxation. In the countryside the ceremonies include a tilling event to insure a plentiful harvest after the spring planting.