Happy Year of the Cat! Below is the English version of my latest essay for VNExpress Kỳ nghỉ siêu dài, published on 22.1.23, Lunar New Year’s Day. It’s a continuation and elaboration of this 12-21 article for VNExpress International about Christmas as the beginning of a long holiday season in Vietnam.
Shalom (שלום), MAA
One of my favorite times of the year is the extended holiday season that begins with Christmas and ends with Tết. Even though the percentage of Vietnamese who celebrate December 25 as the birth of Jesus Christ is in the single digits, Christmas has evolved into a full-fledged secular holiday in recent years.
A sure sign Christmas is approaching is when elaborate and colorful holiday displays at banks and other businesses, with faux Christmas trees, Santa’s sleigh, and reindeer, begin popping up and lighting up all over the city. While Santa Claus has yet to visit every home, children are enchanted by the omnipresent decorations with parents hovering nearby, smartphones at the ready, to record precious digital memories.
Some of the sights and sounds of the season, Vietnamese-style, include rail thin “Santas” whizzing by on motorbikes, young ladies with reindeer antler hair clips, toddlers dressed up in adorable Santa suits, and children singing Christmas carols.
One of the Christmas Eve highlights in Hanoi is joining the thousands milling around the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, dressed for the occasion, hanging out with the baby Jesus and his parents at the oversized manger, soaking in the holiday spirit. Some are believers there to attend mass while most are non-believers just out for a good time.
On this special evening, Catholic churches are magnets that attract people in droves because that’s where the action is. In the north, the chilly weather enhances the mood, especially for those of us who hail from cold climates. Regardless of your beliefs, Christmas is a time of giving, fellowship, and goodwill.
While the rampant consumerism of the US is beginning to rear its ugly head, Christmas in Vietnam remains a quaint and enjoyable holiday for many of us. Unlike the US, people don’t go into credit card debt to buy gifts for family and friends. Most locals, who are at least nominally Buddhist, simply view it as a good excuse for an annual party. It is Westernization but with a Vietnamese touch.
Solar New Year: An Annual Letdown
A short week later is Solar New Year’s Eve, a fun time with parties, fireworks, and outdoor concerts. In Vietnam, this is only round two in a festive season that lasts for at least a month.
Growing up in the U.S., I have bittersweet memories of New Year’s Eve and January 1st. As a child, it meant the end of the much-anticipated holiday vacation followed by bitter disappointment. One last hurrah and then back to school.
As a professional, it was a one-day buffer between relaxation and rejuvenation, and the daily grind. In the span of 24 hours, everyone was forced to transition from a festive and joyful time to the regular routine and the uninspiring colors of winter: gray, brown, and white.
There is no cultural meaning attached to the Solar New Year’s celebration. It is a chance to say goodbye and, sometimes, good riddance to the old year, and welcome the new one with open arms, hope, and a list of resolutions to be and do better.
For those who imbibe, it is an excuse to eat, drink, be merry, and sing Auld Lang Syne (“old long since” or, “long, long ago”) at the top of their lungs while wistfully reflecting on what was and eagerly anticipating what may be. One big, noisy bash, a fleeting day to recover, then back to the mundane routine of everyday life and work.
Setting the Stage for Tết
Unlike in the West, Christmas is the first of several holidays followed by Solar New Year and culminating in Tết, an exponentially more important New Year to prepare for, usher in, and celebrate in style.
A herald of spring, Tết is a unique holiday that has no counterpart or equal in my home country and elsewhere in the West. For many people, it is the only time throughout the year to be with their extended families. It is also valuable time to recharge our emotional and spiritual battery and to renew ourselves.
Traffic gets crazier, people become distracted, business slows down, and shopping reaches a fever pitch. Just as the skinny “Santas” on motorbikes are a sign that Christmas is coming, kumquat trees flying by on motorbikes and delivery trucks are a harbinger of Tết. Then, as if someone flipped a switch, the pre-holiday frenzy abates as many people begin the annual journey to their hometowns.
Suddenly, with all preparations (ideally) completed and obligations fulfilled, the clock magically strikes 12:01 a.m., glasses are raised, and the crackle of fireworks echoes in the night. A few short hours later the skies begin to lighten in the East and the first dawn of a new year arrives, full of possibilities and promise. A glance out the window reveals a surreal once a year scene: quiet streets devoid of traffic.
Then the visits begin with lucky money envelopes in hand, a never-ending stream of toasts, good wishes, and smiles, and warmth in our hearts. And, yes, eating. (Tết is not a time for dieting!) All Vietnamese at home and in the diaspora, those expats who still in town, and some lucky tourists are united in joy and celebration.
A “Super Holiday”
For many expats who are not part of the Vietnamese community and even some Vietnamese who see an opportunity, Tết is a time to take an extended vacation abroad. As a foreigner who has always lived among the Vietnamese and has yet to leave the country during the Lunar New Year, I treasure it as a special time to enjoy and join in much like those who were born and raised here, or who live overseas. In a sense, it is an imposing and culturally significant bookend to the Christmas season that began in December.
It has been my privilege to be in Vietnam for 18 Lunar New Year celebrations. I have come to value each and every one of them for the annual opportunity to reflect, pray, connect, and participate in meaningful rituals that symbolize the need to tie up loose ends from the outgoing year and enter the new Lunar New Year with a clean slate.
Every Lunar New Year is imbued with special meaning as we all continue to make our way in the new normal era in our personal lives and work. Beyond the narrow confines of our lives, we have been afforded yet another precious opportunity to retain some of the unity that is Tết to create a better world for all sentient beings in Vietnam and around the globe. May we have the courage and perseverance take full advantage of it.
From the depths of my heart, wishing everyone a New Year filled with happiness, good health, prosperity, peace, and wonder!