Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vietnam's Lunar Calendar

It was Friday, which was in and of itself nothing special, but I was planning to spend the day maintaining a vegetarian diet. I woke up and lit three joss sticks and placed them on the small altar I'd inherited in my new apartment. Then, in my own fashion I prayed for the well-being of my ancestors, my family, and for continued blessings for my home. The only reasons for these practices, foreign to my traditions, were my desire to adopt as much as possible of a Vietnamese lifestyle during my time here, and the fact that it was the fifteenth day of the lunar calendar.

In Vietnam, the Gregorian calendar is official, just as it is in the West. But this country gives its heart to the moon. As an agricultural society, the lunar calendar for centuries marked the passage of seasons, and determined the schedule of plantings and harvests. And since seasonal changes often brought the threat of meteorological calamities (floods, storms, and so on), the spirits had to be propitiated with offerings, rites and rituals. Many of these rituals later became the most important festivals of modern Vietnam.

This month marks the lunar New Year, known in Vietnam as Tết. To simply equate this holiday with the Western New Year would do it a gross injustice. Tết takes a hold over Vietnam like no western secular or religious holiday I can think of. The country comes to a standstill for about two weeks. Trains and buses are filled to capacity with people journeying to their home towns. Wherever they may be, Vietnamese feel a tremendous nostalgia, wishing to spend the holiday with their families. It is during this season that overseas Vietnamese most acutely feel the pain of being a diaspora.

The word Tết comes from the word tiết, which originally denoted the sections on a stalk of bamboo, but also has the semantic meaning of "season," or "period of time." Begun in 2637 B.C., the Sino-Vietnamese calendar measures time in 60-year cycles, called hồi. The year is divided into 24 periods, conciding with the phases of the moon (an extra month is added every three or four years, to synchronize the lunar and solar calendars). Major seasonal changes, such as the start of spring, are marked with tiếts, or festivals. So while this month's Tết, officially Tết Nguyên Đán, or "festival of the first day," is the most important of all the tếts, it is by no means the only one.

Right now, North Vietnam is abuzz with preparations for the new year. Peach branches, signalling the onset of spring, and festival cakes are starting to appear in markets. Crafts villages, which have been churning out paper lanterns, wood block prints, and other holiday artifacts, are beginning to scale back production. Hanoians at work, anticipating the long vacation, have gotten lazy, spending the day browsing the web or connecting with friends on Facebook. In the next week, the criss-crossing of Vietnamese returning to their home towns will begin, and if you didn't book your ticket weeks or months ago, don't bother trying to get them now.

Having no home town in Vietnam, I will be taking a three-week trip to Malaysia and Singapore (adding a week of vacation time to the 10 days automatically given at work). The goal, as always, will be to explore the history and food of the region, and I hope my readers will appreciate my scrawlings from the tropics. Having been here nearly nine months, I am looking forward also to a little separation from Vietnam, a little perspective, as it were. While my neighbors and friends enjoy their bánh chưng, games, temple visits, and other holiday rituals, I'll be engaging in my own private festival of renewal, occasionally casting a glance northward and wishing my friends and neighbors a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.

No comments:

Post a Comment