Why Vietnamese Lunar New Year’s beats the pants off Pope Gregory the 8th
Villagers in festive dress carry a papier-mâché carp during a procession to mark the day dedicated to the "Kitchen God," part of Vietnam’s Lunar New Year celebrations, in downtown Hanoi on February 3
White Superiority Syndrome has been spreading across much of Asia for God knows how long now. It is based on the unfounded presumption that Western equals better.
Symptoms of this fallacy abound – one need look no further than the absolute absence of any epidermal product sold here that fails to advertise its skin-whitening prowess. The popularity of plastic surgery, especially procedures that aim to transform facial features or mammary dimensions to fit those associated with Caucasian genes, is on the rise in Vietnam.
I pray this dynamic dies a quick death, and that the Vietnamese continue to favor Tet over Western New Year’s. I’m not saying the Vietnamese should reject Gregorian New Year’s – why not celebrate New Year’s twice? The more holidays, the less productivity, the better, far as I’m concerned.
This year I’ve been bombarded with requests to compare New Year’s traditions, so here’s my 417 dong why Tet is infinitely superior to Gregorian New Year’s.
Tet is a festival that only peaks on Lunar New Year’s Day, indicating an arc of time, imbuing the before and after periods with a significance inextricable from the event’s official climax. There’s buildup, comedown, a sense of time to breathe amid the transition from dragon to snake. The atmosphere during Tet actually feels festive. There’s an excitement in the air amid the bright yellow flowers everywhere, karaoke blasting out of every other household where extended families gather, exchanging sticky rice cakes filled with everything under the tropical sun.
Tet may not be immune to the growing culture of materialism and consumerism in Vietnam. But despite the increasing busyness of urban life, the pressure to spend money and meet expectations, the Lunar New Year Festival has retained a drawn-out, dare I say tantric quality – with all Vietnam seeming to fall under its spell for a full month, during which time passes more slowly.
It remains sacred, and hence, worth savoring. Homage is paid to deceased ancestors, the Kitchen God is released ceremoniously and then returns, along with a litany of rituals my Vietnamese friends assume I’ll find strange, but which all make a lot more sense than anything associated with New Year’s where I come from.
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New Year’s in America is an ejaculation of emotion relegated to the last sixth of the final minute of the last day in December, in which grand plans are either executed or spent in somber disappointment. It’s a time to get wasted and fornicate with strangers. No matter how extravagant your New Year’s plans may be, they won’t start until 10 or 11 p.m. and will be done before dawn. The acknowledgement that another 365 days have come and gone is reduced to a handful of blind drunk hours – and that’s if things go well. The next day is nothing more than one giant communal hangover, American football on TV, the lethargic mood obscured by the loom of resolutions to abstain from all your favorite things.
Liturgically speaking, believe it or not, New Year’s Day marked “The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ,” and according to Wikipedia, is still commemorated as such within the Anglican and Lutheran denominations. As an American Jew, raised in a Zen Buddhist household no less, I was inoculated with the notion that the thing to do on the historically unsupportable alleged birthday of Jesus Christ (Prince of Peace, Friend to the Poor) was to express my love for friends and family by buying things, and to prearrange my emotions to reach their apex of raucousness at precisely midnight on the 31st day of the last solar month – in unknowing homage to the mutilation of Jesus’s penis.
Calendric implications are not as innocuous as we’ve been conditioned to believe – their impacts, both positive and negative, are at once concrete, intangible, practical, metaphysical, symbolic and subliminal. Admittedly, I know little of the Vietnamese Lunar Calendar or how it differs from the Chinese calendar, other than that the cat replaces the rabbit in the zodiac, but I know that it means something to those who follow it. We don’t have Dragon or Snake Years in America – nothing on our calendar means anything to us with things like “Thursday,” “April,” or “Four O’clock” just a bunch of blah-blah indicative of nothing existent outside the parameters of the overriding treadmill.
No calendar is perfect, so say the scientists. But while dismissed as superstitious and silly by the West, the Vietnamese Lunar Calendar is an acknowledgment of the inexorable connection between humankind and its home planet and is informed by Buddhist notions of causality and karma – in short, what we do matters.
Under the Gregorian system, it’s all about the megalomaniacs and what benefits them. July and August both have 31 days because Augustus Caesar’s imperial ego demanded his month be just as long as Julius Caesar’s. But that tidbit of insanity, while hardly trivial, is only the beginning.
Since discovering the self-proclaimed prophet Dr. José Argüelles, I’ve been following the 13 Moon Natural Time Calendar he created by integrating the Mayan Day Count with the I’ Ching and half a dozen other things. It has 13 28-day moon-months with a “Day out of Time,” a New Year’s equivalent, which falls on July 25. Five years later, I certainly don’t feel any worse off.
According to Argüelles, “The calendar is the macro-organizing principle of a culture, even if people don’t realize it” and that the “Gregorian is programmed for chaos and Apocalypse,” which in turn “conditions us to accept disorder and irrationality in all of our institutions.” Argüelles argued that contrary to popular belief, time is not money, but rather, it is art, and that it’s this distortion of reality that allows everything in life to be subjected to the inhuman processes of “quantification and commodification.”
“We are the only people with wristwatches and the only species destroying our environment. There is a connection,” contended the late Argüelles. It’s the kind of mumbo-jumbo crazy-talk which infuriates my countrymen more than almost anything. But proposals to replace the Gregorian calendar have been around since 1849, and in 1933, the League of Nations may have agreed to the switch were it not for the objections of the world’s more powerful nations and the unending reach of the Roman Catholic Church, which argued that doing so would anger God and cause “chaos, barbarism and war.”
Modern man has made an absolute mess of the world – the last two centuries have been typified by unnecessary suffering wrought by enslavement to a system bent on plundering our planet’s natural resources as fast as technology will allow, guaranteeing unspeakable poverty and a steady and virtually uninterrupted stream of the bloodiest wars in history along the way. The niftiness of your smart phone provides no evidence to the contrary, as it’s made from tin oxides mined by new-age slaves for war-profiteering Western corporations in the Congo and then assembled in China by a different demographic of new-age slave.
Rome fell, America is crumbling and the myth of progress is still winning, but here – where the biggest holiday of the year aligns with the philosophy that Time is Art – there’s still a chance, perhaps, for something better.
As Vietnam settles into its current station as a “middle-income” nation, it still has time to hold onto the faith its people place in the intrinsic value of their traditions. Stick with the sticky rice and if you must buy your friend an iPhone, save it for Steve Jobs’ birthday.
* The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City
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By Josh Tribe, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the February 22nd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)