How Tet is Like Every Holiday You Can Think Of

Eastern and Western writers try to help Western readers understand our Tet lunar new year holiday by describing the holiday as a combination of Christmas, New Year’s, the Fourth of July and everyone’s birthday all rolled into one. And they’re right.

Tet anchors our holiday season the way Christmas does.
It ushers us over the threshold from one year to the next.
Fireworks are as crucial to the holiday as fireworks are to America’s celebration of independence.
And traditionally in Vietnam, we identify our age by the number of lunar years we’ve lived in, thus we all celebrate a birthday at the same time every year.

There’s one other kind of holiday in the West that’s also a significant part of our holiday at Tet: Family Reunions.


Family members get together to celebrate Tet

Everyone goes home for the big holidays no matter where in the world you live, that’s true, but it’s even more pronounced in Vietnam. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City empty over Tet as people who’ve come to the city for work return to their home villages for the lunar new year.

We have an expression in Vietnamese to describe priorities at Tet: “Mồng 1 Tết Cha, mồng 2 Tết Mẹ, mồng 3 Tết Thầy"

Quite literally, this means that the first day of Tet is for the father’s family; the second day of Tet is for the mother’s family; and the third day of Tet is for teachers.

Many families still cling to that archetypal calendar. Family reunions are happening all over, with invitations dispatched not only to farflung members of the tribe who may have emigrated to the likes of Czechoslovakia and New Caledonia, France and Australia, but to those who’ve emigrated to the Permanent World beyond the grave, as well.

On the third day of Tet, once the father’s family and the mother’s family have celebrated together, students turn toward their teachers. Class reunions happen in a big way at Tet, with many classes contributing funds to scholarships and their teachers, too.

Once the teachers have been honored, friends of all stripes get together. In Central Vietnam, for example, legions of young people from Danang travel to Hue on the fifth day of the new year while legions of people from Hue travel to Danang. It can be a real spectacle with thousands of motorbikes shuttling one way and thousands more shutting the other.

Officially, we celebrate Tet for three days, but this year, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for a five-day holiday. Some say we should go back to the way Tet was in the old days when the holiday was 30 days long.

Which is kind of like the way they celebrate the summer holidays in Europe, right — over thirty days? So we could roll that one into the mix. Tet is like all of the above, and your Summer Holiday, too.