By Thu Hằng
If were on the streets of any city, town or even village in Việt Nam in the weeks or even months before Tết, you would know something was in the air.
If you knew Việt Nam well, you would also know it is the most important festival of the year for all Vietnamese people, whichever part of the world they live in.
And you would know that it was a time that everyone looks forward to with great expectations of having a great time with family and friends, renewing relationships, not to mention all the special food and drinks.
However, something that goes unsaid almost all the time is that when there are great expectations, there’s great pressure, too.
And this pressure can take some gloss off the most important time of the year.
So, with 37 days to go for the latest Tết (Lunar New Year) Festival, preparations are underway all around the country, and children are typically the most excited, though adults don’t lag far behind.
An essay written by a primary school student has been shared on social networks in recent days. As surprising as the essay is the nods of agreement that it has gathered.
She does not like the Tết holiday, the discerning little girl wrote. There was no happy laughter in the house, she wrote, because her mother was too busy decorating the house and cooking things to prepare for the festival. She was frequently irritable with her husband and children. Her mother and other family members were tired, the girl wrote, adding that she did not need a perfect Tết. She was happy when her mother smiled.
It would be a facile thing to say that this girl is an exception to the rule. I think there’s more to it, and it lies in how we approach the festival.
Many Vietnamese women have complained that they are fed up with having to prepare, shop, cook, clean and do other chores ahead of and during Tết. They are exhausted and the festival is no longer a holiday or festive occasion for them.
As a woman doing all these things, I can sympathise.
“I am afraid of Tết now. Every year, I am exhausted preparing (on my own) for Tết, and the enjoyment is missing, really," said Trần Phương Lan, a government employee.
“Being angry with husband or children is inevitable because they do things that I do not expect,” she added.
Traditionally, Tết brought people together to celebrate a sacred, meaningful event. It was an occasion when members of a family, no matter where they were and what they did to earn a living, got together and prayed in front of the ancestral altar, wishing for everyone’s health and happiness. A lot of work, like preparing the festival’s specialties, were done by a lot of people together, and there was the laughter and gaiety missed by the unhappy little girl.
I think we adults are to blame for the changed situation, because we have shifted the focus on to the outward presentation, and not the underlying spirit and meaning. Sometimes we have conflated the two, as though outward perfection was needed to achieve the spirit and meaning.
But many women are too picky in preparation for this event so they push themselves into hard work and their family members are accidentally swept into tiredness too.
“Oh, it is the same in my family. My parents are always busy, too, cleaning and decorating the house and rushing to the market or a supermarket to buy many things for Tết,” said Kiều Khánh Linh, a fifth grade student.
“And sometimes I feel sad, because my mother gets angry with me when I ask something while she is busy cooking,” she said.
Don’t sweat it
Thankfully, some people are showing how Tết can be enjoyed by just trimming the elaborate preparations and focusing on the spirit of the occasion.
They still maintain the tradition of preparing offerings for ancestral worship, but don’t spend much time shopping and cooking before and during the holiday.
Quỳnh Hương, an emcee with HCM City Television, announced on a social networking site that she liked a simple Tết with time to care for the family and herself.
“We need to rest, enjoy the family being together, sharing happy stories and exchanging best wishes rather than being busy all the time as we used to. That’s what makes for a happy Tết,” she said.
Vũ Nhật Minh of Hà Nội agreed.
“I think we have many ways to celebrate the New Year, while not forgetting the country’s traditional culture and values. We can travel, for instance. Travelling is also a way for family members to get closer,” he said.
Of course, there are those who may not agree with Minh or Hương. The most important festival of the year warrants that we are fully prepared, they say.
“I am happy to be busy preparing for Tết, although it is a bit tiring. It brings the warmth of the New Year,” said Nguyễn Thị Mỹ, a resident of Hải Phòng City.
She said she liked preparing traditional foods like s bánh chưng (square glutinous rice cakes) or dưa hành (pickled onion) that many families have given up making, because they can get in a market or supermarket.
This is true as well. Each family and individual can decide how best to celebrate and enjoy Tết. We do not have to exclude any activity or pressurize ourselves into including everything.
But we have to recognise that most of the burden of preparing is shouldered by women. While the rest of the family should give them much more support, the women should also help children better understand what they are doing, and take the initiative in including other family members in their preparations.
We need to get Tet back to where it belongs – a place where fond memories and feelings for a lifetime are created, year after year. — VNS