Every house has a kitchen; every kitchen has its gods. And you’d better treat them well, because they are guardian angels/special agents sent from heaven.
Vietnamese people adore their Kitchen Gods. They have a day just for them during the busy Tet festival.
On that day, the 23rd day of lunar December, the Kitchen Gods will fly to heaven to report to the Emperor about what each family has done during the year.
Families would make numerous offerings to the Gods so that they present a favorable report in heaven. That looks a lot like bribery, but for the love of gods, let's not get too technical on this centuries-old tradition.
This year, the ritual observed for the Kitchen Gods falls on February 11.
Visit a family that day and see new paper boots and hats on the altar, which will be burnt later for the Gods to wear for their trip.
A woman burns paper hats for Kitchen Gods in front of her house in downtown Hanoi during the Tet celebrations in 2014. Photo credit: AFP
People also offer a live carp so that the Gods can ride it to heaven. Traditionally, the holy fish will be released into a nearby pond or river after the ceremony.
One week later, the Gods will return on the last day of the lunar year to continue guarding the family for the new year. Families will prepare another feast to welcome them back.
Culture researcher Huu Ngoc described in one of his books that the ritual is an adaptation from a Chinese tradition.
One key difference: the Vietnamese Kitchen Gods are apparently polygamist.
The Legend of the Kitchen Gods
There’s a couple very much in love. But they were childless and that turned the relationship sour. One day, after a quarrel, the wife left and went to another region, where she remarried. The new husband loved her dearly.
After a long time spent in solitude and sorrow, the old husband went to look for his wife. He spent all he had and eventually had to beg for a living. By chance, he came to the house of the new husband, then was at work in the field.
His wife gave him a good meal. She recognized him but he did not, as hunger and illness have made him partly blind. After he drank some wine and fell asleep, his wife took him into the courtyard and hid him under a heap of straw to avoid embarrassing questions from her new husband.
The new husband came back in the late afternoon and set fire on the straw to make fertilizer from the ashes. Before the wife could intervene, her old husband had been burnt to death.
She threw into the flames with sorrow. Driven by despair, the new husband jumped into the fire.
The Emperor of Heaven, moved by the feeling uniting the three people, made them into household gods.
So, while the Chinese kitchen god is one god with his spouse sitting beside him, the Vietnamese kitchen gods are a trinity: a woman and her loving husbands.
Abridged from “Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture” by Huu Ngoc