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What is the meaning of Tet, the biggest festival in Vietnam
To regard Tet simply as New Year's Day, as one would in the West, would display a poor knowledge of the people of Vietnam.
In spite of its impressive credentials, the Gregorian New Year has not been generally accepted in Vietnam, in the countryside in particular. Our people pay it a courteous homage but reserve their heart and soul for the traditional Tet.
Tet falls sometime between the last ten days of January and the middle part of February.
For a nation of farmers attached to the land for millennia, it has always been a festival marking the communion of man with nature. In the flow of seasons it is a pause during which both the field and the tiller enjoy some rest after twelve months of labor. In this period of universal renewal the Vietnamese man feels surging within himself a fountain of youth. That feeling explains many fine customs: in the New Year all action should be pure and beautiful for it may be an omen foretelling events in the twelve months that follow.
For three days, one takes extra care not to show anger and not to be rude to people. The most nagging mother-in-law will make peace with her daughter-in-law; a quarreling couple will smile pleasantly at each other; the new world should be the best of worlds. When the holiday ends, people will resume their activities in a new spirit following so-called opening rituals in which the ploughman will open the first furrow, the official applies his seal to the first document, the scholar trace the first character with his pen brush, the trader receives his first customer.
As a rule, all members of the extended family try to spend the holiday (the idiom used is to "eat Tet") together under the same roof. Children vow to be well-behaved and are often given gifts of cash wrapped in red paper. Several times a day, joss-sticks are lit on the family altar and offerings made of food, fresh water, flowers and betel. Family graves are visited, generally, before the end of the 'outgoing' year; fences are mended and the burial mounds tidied up.
The Vietnamese Tet is an occasion for an entire people to share a common ideal of peace, concord and mutual love. I know of no communal celebration with more humanistic character.