Chu Lan Huong
Should we celebrate Tết at all?
And/or, why are we celebrating two New Years every year?
Amidst all the happy hustle and bustle associated with the approach of Tết (Lunar New Year), this topic is being revisited this year on social media with surprising fervour.
If memory serves me right, the topic was first raised more than 10 years ago by a famous professor who controversially suggested that the Lunar New Year celebration be done away with, and Viet Nam as a nation shifts to celebrating the solar New Year, based on the Gregorian calendar.
The professor’s argument went thus: The long time that Vietnamese people took to celebrate Tet meant the loss of opportunities to do business with foreign partners; farmers would spend less time tending to the Winter-Spring rice harvest, the biggest of the year, causing losses; it wasted time that students should spend studying; the celebration promoted social evils like gambling and drinking; there were more traffic accidents; and working days were wasted.
Many people applauded this suggestion, including economists and other experts. They argued that having two different holidays for the solar and lunar new years affected businesses and production.
This year, the argument has gained some added traction, with people saying greater international integration, an avowed national target, was a reason to celebrate just one New Year.
Japan is pointed to as an example, with some even going to the extent of saying celebrating the New Year like Westerners was one of the factors in the East Asian giant’s many economic achievements, including becoming the third largest economy in the world.
Other reasons have weighed in against the festival, too. Some people said it stressed them out. They were tired of shopping before the holiday, and then cooking and visiting relatives during the holiday.
"Actually, I am afraid of Tết now. The traditional part of it has been gradually vanishing", said Nguyen Hai Huyen, from Ha Noi. It was no longer a big family affair with people getting together to make things, she said.
"Every year, I am exhausted preparing for Tết (on my own), and the enjoyment is missing, really," she said.
Predictably, the other side is outraged.
“I’ve seen this nonsensical debate going on these days over whether we should abolish the traditional Tet festival,” said Tô Quyên, a Vietnamese woman living in the United Kingdom.
“I say nonsensical because this should not be an issue at all. If you are Vietnamese, you celebrate Tết. This cannot change.”
She has a point, I would say.
There can be no argument that Tet is the biggest and perhaps the oldest festival in Việt Nam, bringing people together to celebrate a sacred, meaningful annual event. It is an occasion when members of a family, no matter where they are and what they do to earn a living, get together and pray in front of the ancestral altar. Returning home to celebrate Tet is de rigueur for just about every Vietnamese citizen, whether they are away from home within the country or abroad. In fact, the festival draws thousands of foreign visitors looking to get an authentic feel for the country.
Dương Trung Quốc, a historian, says that like other countries in Asia, Vietnamese people are original rice farmers, and their lives are connected closely with lunar calendar. All the important events of a Vietnamese person’s life, the one-month old celebration, weddings, funerals, and death commemorations are based on lunar calendar, he said.
This has been happening for thousands of years. Why should we change now?
Are we to dismiss and undermine our own culture and identity for the sake of “economic efficiency?”
I would say that this economic efficiency is even more of an abstract idea than a cultural festival that is linked to actual, daily life events like harvests, change of seasons, traditional festival food… the list goes on and on.
So let us take the learned professor’s contention that the long celebration of Tet is one of the reasons Việt Nam is less developed and lags behind other countries.
What about Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. We all know people from other countries flock to Thailand for the kingdom’s own New Year celebrations. And what of India? Its citizens probably celebrate a dozen different New Years, which are local holidays. All that cultural diversity should be destroyed to honour commercial gods?
I am reminded of the story where a development worker approaches a poor man sitting and relaxing under a tree at the beach. The expert advises the man to work hard and make progress. For what? So that he can sit and relax at the beach.
If we work harder (as if we don’t do that now) and do not celebrate Tết, what will we do with the added prosperity? Celebrate Tết.
And there is evidence aplenty that honouring the commercial god will rob the soul of a nation and its people.
Let’s get this clear, once and for all: Tet marks our culture and our identity, and it represents our nation’s soul. -- VNS