Origin of Tết
Every year, at the occasion of Tết (First Day of Lunar Calendar Year), the Montreal Nationalist Vietnamese Community has always organized the Tết Festival, with tens of thousands of people gathering for ancestral ritual celebration, unicorn dancing, musical performances, and Tết variety stalls … Friends and small associations such as hội Rồng Vàng (Golden Dragon Association of senior people), the Sa Long Cương group, the SAIM club also organize End of Year banquets in restaurants, and published their own periodicals’ special issue for Tết … On the first day of the year, most people go to pagoda, church, Cao Đài temple to celebrate Tết together and offer one another best wishes for the new year.
In areas with large Vietnamese refugee populations like Little Saigon, Cabramatta Sydney, San Jose … Tết is celebrated with all splendor (parade of associations, firecrackers, flower market, musical performance …) with the participation of up to hundreds of thousand people.
Vietnamese scholars in Chinese studies often talk about two words Tết and Tiết. Both words have their pronunciations derived from the sound tset of the Chinese character Tiết 節.This also brings up the question whether the scholars have illogically abused the words or not since Tết is a Vietnamese word while Tiết is a Chinese word. Vietnamese people usually think that Tết is a holiday of Chinese people. Therefore, the fanatic anti-China Vietnamese people also fight against Tết festivals. These are a few points for us to think about the origin of Tết through the two explanations surrounding the word Tiết (Chinese word) and Tết (Vietnamese word).
Tết in South East Asia
According to eco-economic research studies, in the ancient time, there were two ethnic groups living in the territory of China: the Hans in the Yellow River basin specializing in animal husbandry and nomad, and the Baiyue (or Hundred Yue, including the Lạc Việt) in the South of the Yangtze River specializing in growing wet rice. Tết is an agricultural festival originated from the Baiyue under the South East Asian cultural influence. We have, therefore, the following questions.
Before the Chinese domination era, how did the Vietnamese people celebrate Tết? According to Giao Chỉ Chí (Gazetteer of Giao Chỉ), Tết of the Vietnamese people was the celebration of a new rice season: “The Giao Quận people often grouped into guilds and associations, dancing and singing, eating and drinking for several days to celebrate a new rice sowing season, not only the farmers but also all servants of Quan Lang (mandarins), Chúa Động (chiefs of tribe) participated in this festival.”
Is there a Chinese word for Tết? In the Book of Rites, Confucius has said: “I do not know what Tết means; I heard that it is a big festival day of the Barbarians, they dance like crazy, drink alcohol, eat and play in these days. They call that day Tế Sạ.”
Which country has the word Tết with the same meaning like in the Vietnamese language? According to the research done by Dr. Nguyễn Hy Vọng, Tết is a noun used to call the celebration of the first day of a new year of many peoples of the South East Asia when the monsoon comes from the Indian Ocean bringing in the rains for the start of the rice growing season. That is why the celebration for the new year of the Thai people is called Thêts, of the Indian people and the Khmer people called Chêtr in the 4th or 5th month of their old calendar, of the Mường people called Thết, of the Chàm people called Tít in the 5th month of their old Chàm calendar … Therefore Tết is the day celebrating the beginning of the rainy season and later becomes the day celebrating the first day of the lunar calendar year.
From these 3 above-mentioned questions, we have the following thoughts.
Vietnam’s territory is a part of the South East Asian region. As a consequence, Vietnam has many cultural characteristics similar to the ones of South East Asian countries: growing rice being dependent on the rainy season, chewing betel-areca, bronze drums, skirt wearing, living in house on stilts … From these similarities, we can raise the following hypotheses.
– In the ancient time, the Vietnamese people, like other peoples in the South East Asian region, celebrated Tết as the beginning of the farming season made possible by the rainy monsoon.
– Is it possible that, after the long period of Chinese assimilation, the Vietnamese people were forced to follow the custom of celebrating Tết like the Chinese, and that is why the Hán scholars consider the word Tết as derived from the Chinese word Tiết 節? This leads to the deduction that the traditional Vietnamese Tết was originated from China.
– According to Chinese history, Xuân Tiết (Spring Weather) or Tân Niên (New Year) was dated back to the era of Three Emperors (Tam Hoàng) and the Tiết holiday has changed through dynasties, the Xia Dynasty chose the first month, the Shang Dynasty picked the month of the buffalo (12th month), the Qin Dynasty selected the month of the pig (11th month), the Han Dynasty chose the month of the tiger (1st month). Etymologically, the Vietnamese word Tết does not have anything to do with the Chinese word Tiết in the term Tiết Nguyên Đán in Chinese history. Nguyên Đán only means the first morning of the spring.
Today, many thoughts, religions, custom have already crossed the boundary of countries, nations to belong to humanity, such as Christianity, I Ching, Buddhism … Therefore, if Tết Nguyên Đán, based on the Chinese lunar calendar, is considered as belonging to the cultural heritage of humanity, we should continue to celebrate and enjoy the Tết holiday and accept the explanation that the word Tết is from the word Tiết 節.
Tết according to the I Ching
The Chinese people have tried to explain the Tiết Xuân (spring weather) based on the I Ching (The Book of Changes). Tiết is used for “tiết trời = climate, weather” for a period of time, for example, tiết xuân (spring weather), tiết hạ (summer weather), etc. to describe the influence of the earth’s atmosphere felt by people through temperature (hot, cold, warm …), i.e., Tết Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Festival), Thanh Minh (Qingming or Ching Ming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day), Đoan Ngo (Duanwu Festival).
The word “nguyên” 元 in the term “Nguyên Đán” 元 旦 means the beginning, first, and “đán” means the early morning. The original meaning of Nguyên Đán was “The first day” of the year according to he agricultural calendar. Tết Nguyên Đán, therefore, is the first early morning of the spring weather, and also the first early morning of the year called Chánh Đán. The First Day of the First Month is the time of the first three important mornings of the Cycle of Chi for a year. It is, therefore, also called the Day of Tam Chiêu, Tam Thúy or Tam Nguyên: Early morning of the First Month, Early morning of the spring, and Early morning of the year.
Who has observed and found the Yin Yang principle?
About 5000 years ago, the high-minded men observed the universe and found out those two phenomena: air from the sky flowing down such as light, wind … and air from the earth going up like the steam. These two up and down air flows intertwined incessantly and created the visible physical phenomena of the world. The high-minded men drew a straight line ▬▬ representing the yang principle (positive air going down from sky), and a broken line ▬ ▬ representing the yin principle (negative air going up from earth). These two yin and yang interact and created all phenomena that we can observe in the universe.
With these two symbols of yin and yang, the high-minded men have written the I Ching expressing the law of yin yang as the force that created the world and the process of human life cycle in the great universe.
Next, the high-minded men observed the results of the interactions of the yin yang going up and down and creating the “tiết của khí = weather of the chi” in the atmosphere, such as, cold, hot, fire, humidity, wind, drought. They also discovered the phenomen of the non-stop up-down movement of air in the human body that created the “weather” of cold, hot, warm in the human body. From these observations, people realized the communication between the great universe and the small universe (the people). Upon discovering the important influence of the universal air on them, men began to celebrate the first day (Tết Nguyên Đán) of the annual cycle of air movement in the universe.
Cycle of air movement
During pre-historic time, the high-minded men observed the air movement in the universe and discovered that the air changes during the four seasons sprint, summer, autumn and winter was similar to the four periods of each day (12 midnight to 6 AM, 6 AM to 12 noon, 12 noon to 6 PM, 6 PM to 12 midnight). The air of each period of change was called by the high-minded men Thiếu dương (junior or low yang; spring), Thái dương (senior or high yang; summer), Thiếu âm (junior or low yin; autumn), and Thái âm (senior or high yin, winter). To express these 4 periods of air change, the high-minded men have stacked up the straight line ▬▬ (representing the sky) or broken line ▬ ▬ (representing the earth) to create the images of air changes in the universe as follows:
▬▬▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬▬▬
▬▬▬▬ ▬▬▬▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬ ▬▬
Thái dương Thiếu dương Thái âm Thiếu âm
The cycle of air changes in the universe through the 4 periods of Thiếu dương, Thái dương, Thiếu âm, Thái âm corresponds to:
4 seasons of the year: spring, summer, autumn, winter
4 changes of the human body: birth, ageing, disease, death
4 states of natural things: formation, sustaining, deterioration, annihilation.
The first day of the first month (of the lunar calendar) is considered as the day of the beginning of the annual cycle of air changes in the universe because that day marks the rebirth of the universe, of life, and that is why people celebrate and call it Tết Nguyên Đán.
Questions about Tết
When talking about Tết, grown-up children usually want to receive explanations for custom about Tết especially about the taboos.
First Day of Spring?
Why is Nguyên Đán day sometimes not on the same day with the First Day of Spring? The first day of the first month of the agricultural calendar is called “Xuân tiết” (in Chinese characters: 春 節; in pinyin: chūnjié meaning spring festival). These two days, in lunar calendar, are not on the same date, as we can see in this table:
Tết Nguyên Đán
First Day of Spring
Kỷ Dậu (1968-1969)
Canh Tuất (1969-1970)
Tân Hợi (1970-1971)
Nhâm Tí (1971-1972)
The main reason for this is the use of time zones. After 1975, both North and South Vietnames have used the same time zone GMT +7 (before 1975, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam used GMT + 7 while the Republic of Vietnam used GMT + 8 like China). Currently, both Vietnam and China are using two different time zones. This causes the difference in making the Vietnamese and Chinese agricultural calendars, resulting in having sometimes one-hour difference and sometimes one-whole-month difference. Therefore, some year Vietnam and China celebrate Tết on the same day and some other year Vietnam will celebrate Tết before China.
God of Kitchen, carp?
At year-end, we always make offerings to the God of Kitchen with the carp. On the 23rd Day of the 12th Month, the God of Kitchen came back to the Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. In order to get to the Heaven, he must ride the carp, which, after its passage of the Vũ Môn (Gate of Rain), will become a dragon that can continue the flight.
Last Night of the Year? (Trừ tịch)
Trừ = resign from a mandarin position; Tịch = the night of the last day of the last month, i.e., the moment the old year ends and the New Year begins.
Passage between Old and New Year (Giao Thừa)
Giao Thừa is the midnight moment of transition between the old year to the New Year and of the hand-over between the old and new Hành Khiển. People make offerings for Giao Thừa outside the house in the open in order to welcome the celestial guards under the command of the Hành Khiển (the God responsible for the Supervision of Human Life on Earth during the year).
Three-day celebration of Tết?
The celebration of Tết in three days symbolizes the Theory of the Three Treasures Sky-Earth-Man. On the First Day, the Hour of the Mouse is for Sky; on the Second Day, the Hour of the Buffalo is for Earth; on the Third Day, the Hour of the Tiger is for Man. On the Fourth Day we celebrate the Thanksgiving Ceremony of the Ceremony of Saying Good-bye to Our Ancestors; on the Seventh Day we celebrate Khai Hạ, i.e., ceremony of lowering the Tết Pole.
Visiting and Vital spirit?
Why do we have the custom of selecting a person with a good vital spirit to come for a visit on the First Day of the Year? The Vietnamese people usually talk about “ba hồn chin vía = three souls and nine vital spirits.” The soul belongs to the Pre-sky Chi (existing before the formation of the sky and earth), which is pure, light, and flowing upward. The vital spirit is the Post-sky Chi (existing after the formation of the sky and earth), which is dirty and heavy, coming out from the human body holes (men have 7 holes: 2 ears, 2 nostrils, 2 eyes, and mouth; women have 9 holes: the additional vagina and the rectum). The vital spirit is present on the earth and can have influence on people living around. And that’s the reason for the election of people having good vital spirit to come for a visit.
Giving money to offer good wishes for the age?
At Tết, grandparents and parents often give money to the grandchildren and children as a wish for good fortune. The Montreal Nhóm Liên Kết Các Thế Hệ (Montreal Group of Providing Link Between Generations) has the initiative to make a new kind of Giving Money Envelopes to replace the Chinese Red Envelopes. On each of the Giving Money Envelope there is an inscription about a historical event, such as the story of the Marquis of Hoài Văn Trần Quốc Toản helping Trần Hưng Đạo’s fight against the Mongols, with the image of a cherry blossom branch beside the Lạc Việt bronze drum.
In Montreal, before Tết, a flower market is organized in the hall of the Nationalist Vienamese Community of the Montreal Region. Most people like to search for the beautiful and meaningful flowers such as the cherry flowers, the mai flowers, the marigolods, and the all-fruit tangerines … According to our belief, the red cherry flowers have the power to chase away the bad spirits by the power of the two gods Trà and Uất Lũy residing in the cherry tree. The yellow mai flowers will bring good luck (the Vietnamese word for Luck is May which sounds like the word Mai).
When talking about the Chinese culture, we should try to avoid being too fanatically anti-China like the group in California, US currently advocating for not to celebrate Tết because Tết is a Chinese holiday. We should not forget that many philosophical thoughts (yin-yang, five elements of I Ching), religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism …), custom (Tết, Christmas) have already crossed the national boundaries to become world common cultural heritages.
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The word Chi or Khí 氣,meaning the air, includes the character 气 showing the vapor going up and becoming invisible in the air, and the character 米 = mễ = rice. The word Khí, formed by the combination of these two characters, implies that when rice is burned it becomes Tinh, Tinh will be transformed into invisible air. The word Khí gives the image of the up-down movement of yin yang principle: the Yin emanating from the visible Tinh (Mễ) and turns itself into the invisible Yang. ↑
According to the Chinese legend of lì xì (giving money), 8 coins (representing 8 fairies) put in a red envelope and placed under the child’s pillow to chase ways the bad spirits. ↑