Christmas around the World – Vietnam
Most Vietnamese are Buddhist. In spite of that, and thanks to its being a French colony until 1954 when the Vietnamese voted for independence, the nation celebrates the Christmas holiday like there is no tomorrow.
For some reason – perhaps because it doesn’t conflict with any of the other three highly important annual religious celebrations (Lunar New Year, Buddha’s birthday, and the Mid-Autumn Festival) – Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day, is the more important time for parties, socializing and a big, elaborate dinner after Midnight Mass.
In between, or after Mass and dinner, the people gather in the city center alongside 120-year-old Saint Joseph Cathedral. Cars are forbidden during these holidays to make room for rowdy celebrants of either religion, who mingle quite comfortably in true Vietnamese fashion.
Children put their shoes in front of their doors, expecting Santa to fill them from his bag of presents. In this respect, Christmas Eve is so similar to celebrations in the United States that – except for the different language and Oriental faces – a visitor from Kansas would feel right at home. This includes the decorated trees and other seasonal gewgaws and fripperies hanging on street lights and across the windows of stores. It also includes a life-sized nativity, or crèche, at every major church in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Even the Christmas Eve dinner would be somewhat familiar to Americans, including as it does a traditional chicken soup or wontons in chicken broth, sticky rice, rice crepes (banh xeo), pork buns (Char Siu Bao), taro puffs, roast goose, duck, and a Christmas pudding instead of a turkey for many of the growing middle class in Vietnam. Unlike Americans, however, the gifts of food are not fruitcake, gourmet cheese samplers or candy, but a chocolate Christmas cake that looks like a log and is called a “būche de Noël” (literally log of Christmas).
Christmas pudding? Shades of Charles Dickens! I can almost hear Tiny Tim saying, “God bless us, every one!” In the countryside, people don’t celebrate Christmas with quite as much gusto as in the cities. But in some city blocks, all the inhabitants will conspire to put up enough lighted decorations to attract drive-by’s, just like we do in the U.S.
The one thing that is totally unique about Vietnamese Christmas is the throwing of confetti on the night of December 24. We do this in the U.S. after a couple is married, so perhaps the Vietnamese equivalent suggests the happy, peaceful “marriage” of two (formerly separate) geographical areas, North and South Vietnam, as well as a marriage of cultures – ancient Oriental Buddhism and modern Catholicism.
It wouldn’t take much effort or radical change to celebrate Vietnamese Christmas in the U.S. The only real difference, besides the confetti, is the food. Starting early in the month of December, after cleaning house, washing Grandma’s china, and polishing the silverware, families decorate with Christmas ornaments and a kumquat tree, or peach blossom branches. Flowers, of any kind, and living or cut, are also good, the brighter the better. Modern wives or husbands also throw out their old rice cookers and buy a new one to rid the kitchen of bad luck, but this tradition was not much practiced in the old Vietnam, before the war, especially in the poorer areas of the countryside.
The ancestral alter is also prepared with five fruit varieties and votive papers (i.e., paper objects meant to resemble money or precious metals and burned to honor ancestors and remove bad luck). Everyone gets new clothes and shoes, and in general the attitude is “out with the old, in with the new.” The people I know would be totally comfortable with that.
On December 23, the family will celebrate Kitchen God(s) day. This venerable deity, known as Ong Tao, Ong Lo or Ong Vua Bep (or Tao Quan when grouped together), is honored by the same traditions practiced at the ancestral alter. Instead of wealth-inspired paper votives like money or gold, however, there are three votive papers, two black and one yellow, meant to recall the two men and one woman in the legend that inspired the devotion.
There is also a bowl with three carp, which will be freed into a lake or pond after the holidays. This freeing the fish is meant to reinforce traditional Vietnamese respect for animals, without which they would be forced to eat only vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits. For the Vietnamese, who are “foodies” of the first order, this would be a tragedy, and the freeing of the fish nicely follows Shinto tradition as well.
The holidays begin with the Kitchen God day and are followed by Christmas Eve celebrations a day later. These continue until about January 28, which marks the end of Tet. In simplest terms, Tet is a fusion of Christmas and New Year’s, providing the fun-loving Vietnamese with ample opportunity to enjoy family and loved ones. After all, that is what the holidays are for.