There is something exhilarating in the word ‘new,’ like a painter’s first stroke on canvas. I feel it when I step out on a deep and untouched bank of snow, or when I dive my knife into a new jar of peanut butter. The feeling is clean and fresh and vibrant. I get the same exhilaration on the first day of every new year, when the calendars clear up begin again.
In the Western tradition, the first calendar day is marked by the position of the sun, but in many East Asian countries, the moon has been used to signal the shift. On the first new (or dark) moon of the Chinese calendar year, these countries light up with fireworks and traditional celebrations. In Vietnam, this special night of festivities is called Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tết for short.
I was drawn to the Vietnamese holiday like to a bank of fresh snow. Tired of the Times Square Ball and the staged kisses, I was ready for a brand new path into 2016. When offered one, I naturally jumped on the opportunity to attend a local Tết party, hosted by the Vietnamese exchange students in my community. Together, we paraded into the Year of the Monkey with traditional food and dancing, late into the night.
You may be just as fascinated by unknown culture and just as excited by the newness of the Tết experience as I was. If you are about to begin your first step into the Lunar New Year, here’s what you will need to get started:
1. Formal Attire
Tết is considered the most important holiday in the Vietnamese culture, so it is important to dress up in your nicest clothes. Traditionally, women have worn long, colorful silk dresses known as áo dài. These dresses are tight-fitting, and often collared, with full arm-length sleeves. They come with a variety of designs and floral patterns, and are typically red or yellow as a symbol of luck. Males also dress in a variety of colors and patterns. Occasionally, they will wear robes of similar design and material (áo gấm), but suits are more common in today’s celebrations.
2. Traditional Performances
Who doesn’t like shows? Tết is the perfect time to get dramatic. The most popular show is the Mua Lan, or Lion Dance. Two performers hide, standing beneath a lion costume, with one at the head and one at the rear. The costume lion begins in a “sleeping” state, but at the sound of the drums, it wakes. Then the men parade the lion around the room, moving its ears, opening its jaws, and mounting it up on its “hind” legs.
Acrobatics shows, martial arts, and other active performances are also exciting ways to entertain New Year’s guests. I enjoyed sword fighting, fan dancing, and even a fashion show this year.
Music is important for any party; there is no exception with Tết. An assortment of drums, bells, and gongs are used in rhythm to ward off evil spirits, especially in conjunction with the Lion Dance. You can also perform popular songs on stages and in smaller groups. This year, I heard everything from Cam Ly to Meghan Trainor, and one kid even rapped the numbers from one to 100 in the style of a popular Vietnamese parody.
4. An Abundance of Food
You have many options to consider when preparing food. One very popular appetizer is called mứt, which is an assortment of candied fruits and seeds. It is served as a table snack, and often includes watermelon seeds, crystallized ginger, coconut, roasted pumpkin seeds, and/or dried pineapple. You can swap out your favorite nuts and fruit if you’d like, but the ginger is truly unlike anything else you will try. If you enjoy cooking, there is a simple recipe for crystallized ginger here.
For your main course, there are many more new tastes to sample. There is the oddly colored Vietnamese sausage, which is both sugary sweet and spicy. There are fried spring rolls, the common favorite among western palates. I especially enjoyed the fruit bowl, a mix of mangos, cantaloup, and a new kind of fruit called longan, which were all served in a bath of sweet milk. For me, the most surprising dish of the night was bánh chưng, a squishy green rice cake filled with pork and served cold. The texture and consistency took some special getting used to, but I eventually grew to appreciate it.
5. Lucky Money
Lucky money is a small gift, wrapped in a red envelope and exchanged between close friends and family. The idea is to promote growth and prosperity in the upcoming year. Just like opening a brand new jar of peanut butter, the Lunar New Year is a chance to start over fresh. No one can be found cleaning her house or wearing old clothes from the previous year. Before this special day, all debts and services must be paid in order to begin again. The first gift, then, is lucky money, which is meant to encourage successful investments in the year to come.
The next Lunar New Year will be on 28 January 2017, and we will begin the Year of the Rooster. Make sure to finish this year strong, and pay your debts. Then you can begin planning that first step into what has never been tracked before. You can experience for yourself the transition between Chinese calendar years in the beautiful Vietnamese tradition. I promise you, it is an exciting time! Would you really expect anything less from the New Year?