Lunar New Year: Celebrating Tết

February marks the celebration of the Lunar New Year across many cultures. This year, it is observed on February 10, which coincides with the new moon and the beginning of a new year on the Lunar Calendar.

Tết is a Vietnamese New Year holiday where everyone gathers to celebrate and spend time with family over food and much more. Tết is short for Tết Nguyên Đán. Tết is the name of the festival and Nguyên Đán means “the first day of the new year.” The holiday is based on the lunar calendar so the date changes yearly, but it usually falls between Jan 21 and Feb 20. Many people travel back to their hometowns to celebrate, with big firework displays in the major cities. Tết celebrates the harvest and all the hard work people have done over the whole year. Yen Le, a member of the Vietnamese community and a Community Engagement Specialist here at ECOSS shared some of the traditions surrounding Tết, and her favorite memories celebrating Tết both in Vietnam and here in Seattle.

A family gathering on the day of Tet

What are some of your favorite Tết traditions?
Some of my favorite traditions are giving and receiving lucky money (Lì Xì) to children and elderly people, family reunions and traveling back home, eating traditional food, wearing traditional clothes and dragon dancing, reading my yearly horoscope (Tử Vi) and visiting temple or church to bless our whole family.

What are the different food customs for Tết? Do you have a favorite meal?

Sticky rice and candied fruit
  • The day before Tết is called Tất Niên, where we eat the last dinner of the old year, which is usually the same food as the first day of Tết. We also cook extra so that people who come over on the first day have food to eat. Depending on your religious beliefs, you observe three days of eating certain foods and avoiding other types of foods.
  • Day 1 is Tết Day. We eat Thịt Kho Trứng (braised pork with eggs), Canh Khổ Qua (Bitter Melon soup), Củ Kiệu (Pickled Scallion), Bánh Tét (Sticky rice cake) and Bánh Chưng (Vietnamese square sticky rice cake), Gà Luộc (Boiled whole chicken), xôi gà (Chicken sticky rice), Chả Lụa (pork bologna), Mứt (candied fruit), hạt dưa (Melon seed), Măm ngũ quả (a five fruit tray that includes soursop, coconut, papaya, mango and dragon fruit) — the northern region of Vietnam also includes bananas (chuối).
  • Day 2— My dad usually cooks his mother’s recipe for a stir fry dish — he calls it “Mien xao.” It has vegetables, mushrooms, green bean noodles, fried tofu flakes, and fermented red bean curd.
  • Day 3— All of our meals are vegetarian, mainly vegetarian noodle soup.
  • Day 4 to Day 10— You can go back to eating anything you want.

My favorite foods we cook around this time are the stir fry my dad cooks on the second day, bánh tét, and bánh chưng. I like the stir fry dish specifically because this is one of the recipes that my father’s mother left for our whole family to cook when celebrating the New Year. She has gone to the good place now, so every year my family on my dad’s side cooks this dish and holds a memorial for my grandmother. For bánh tét and bánh chưng, we don’t actually get to eat this dessert until the New Year comes around. I have to wait the whole year just to eat this since no one in Vietnam or here sells it during other times of the year. There are different kinds of filling inside such as meat and green bean, banana, or sweet green bean– my favorite is sweet green bean.

What are the festivals like in Vietnam compared to here in Seattle?
In Vietnam, during the week leading up to Tết we begin the process of preparation and memorial worship. All the dates below are according to the Lunar calendar, which means they change from year to year.

Decorations typically hung around the home and flower trees.
  • 12/23– Giving offerings to Kitchen God. (Some people have this god due to different religions)
  • 12/23– Visiting ancestral gravesite
  • 12/25– Cleaning up the house, much like spring cleaning
  • 12/26 and 27– Planning the shopping lists and what to buy. My family is really intentional about this part and doesn’t want anything to be missing from the list. We would buy all the cooking ingredients and flowers from the market.
  • 12/28– Decorations day, the whole house is decorated in red, green, and gold. Most people avoid wearing or decorating with black and white for the New Year.
  • 12/29– Decoration and offerings: the 5 fruit plates and flower arrangement. Everything being offered to god needs to be fresh, including food and decorations.
  • 12/30– The last dinner is called Tt Niên. After you present your offerings to your ancestors, everyone eats this last meal of the old year and prepares for the new year
  • 1/1– Celebrations and visits to temple or Church.

In my opinion, Tết in Seattle is less traditional because not everyone in my generation celebrates it and sometimes it is just another holiday to rest before going back to work. Before 2012, there were not a lot of activities or festivals for people to celebrate Tết, but now I see a lot more traditional food and festivals being offered.

Some other key differences are:

  • Vietnamese people still have to work on Tết day because Tết isn’t celebrated as a national holiday in America. In Vietnam, both New Years are celebrated (Gregorian Calendar and Lunar Calendar)
  • Here, everyone last minute shops until 3 days before Tết.
  • Some fruits that are used for meals or offerings are not available to buy for Tết, and if it is available it is super expensive and understocked.

Do you have a favorite Tết memory?
I would say traveling back to Vietnam to celebrate. I remember the atmosphere in the streets in Sai Gon, and seeing people traveling around to see their families. Everything feels really nice and nostalgic. I remember feeling anxious but also excited, like the feeling when you just bought a new house and you’re excited to start decorating it. During this time, I visited my cousins since school shuts down for 10 days for everyone to enjoy and celebrate the New Year and then prepare for the next year. I also ate so many delicious foods that I usually can’t find here in the States.

The Orchna integerrima that everyone has in their house during the festival.

One thing that I wish I could experience here in America is the streets of the city being almost completely empty. In Vietnam, since everyone has gone back to their hometown, you step outside and immediately feel a sense of peace and going back to nature again. With so few cars around, Vietnam’s air feels fresher during the New Year, like the smell after rain, woody but with the scent of Ochna Integerrima flowers.