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Fresh peonies and loose leaf tea are laid on the altar and incense is burned, as offerings to the Kitchen Gods

So, how long did it take before you first broke one of your 2012 new year’s resolutions? A day, a week, two weeks? If you haven’t broken any of your resolutions, then yay for you! If you have, however, don’t worry because the new year is just a week away! … Of course, I’m talking about the Lunar New Year; more popularly referred to as “Chinese New Year”, but in actual fact celebrated by the Chinese as well as the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese refer to it as “Tet” and the wonderful thing about it is that celebrations start one, sometimes two, weeks before new year’s day.

Whereas in many Western cultures, children are told that Santa Claus has been making a list (and checking it twice) of those who have been “naughty and the nice”, the Vietnamese believe that their families have been under the watchful eye of three “Kitchen Gods” (“Ong Tao”) (hey, they don’t have elves to help them out, so they need a small posse to watch over an entire family!). Today, the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, the Gods will fly into the heavens on their golden carp and spend a week to report on the family to the Jade Emperor (“Ngoc Hoang”). So, to ensure a good report, many families will today “spring clean” their houses and their lives by scrubbing down the house, buying new clothes for any children, paying off any debts (credit cards and mortgages are generally exempt these days) and resolving any disputes.

Five different types of fruit are offered to the Kitchen Gods. Here, organic homegrown banana, rambutan, longan, cherries and mango

When I lived in Vietnam a few years ago, I remember my work colleagues would leave work early to partake in the ceremonies. At home, their mothers and grandmothers would have spent the day preparing food, which would be offered to the Kitchen Gods and votive caps, gowns and boots would be burned (a gesture of packing up the suitcase for the Kitchen Gods’ journey).  One of my favourite traditions on this day, is when the families gather in the evenings to release live carp into the ponds and lakes (symbolic of sending the Kitchen Gods on their way).

Sticky rice: one with sweet banana and red bean, one with yellow bean and pork - to fill the bellies of the Kitchen Gods before they ascend to heaven

Most Vietnamese families I know who live outside of Vietnam, tend to practise more simple customs on this day. My family will lay out a modest offering of sticky rice (symbolising familial cohesion), fresh loose leaf tea, five types of fruit and fresh flowers (this year, we’re using peonies, which symbolise good fortune). We will light incense and ask the Kitchen Gods to remember our good deeds and forgive us for our bad deeds; we will promise to be better people in the new year (not dissimilar to the Western culture of making new year resolutions!) and pray that the Kitchen Gods will return next week, bringing us good fortune for the new year.

Although it is not the most exciting part of the Tet festivities, it is certainly one of the most important, as families make a final effort to end the year on a good note – a very beautiful tradition, I think. For those of us lucky enough to practise a combination of Western and Eastern cultures, it is a second chance to start afresh. Yes, I admit, I broke my first new year’s resolution on day 7 of 2012. So, here I am again to resolve:

  1. to be kinder to my body and the environment by cooking and eating more organic, locally-grown foods;
  2. to gain brownie points with the green fashion gods, by shopping eco-conscious labels and up-cycled/refashioned labels; and
  3. in keeping with the recycling theme, a resolution I am borrowing from 2011: to run my first marathon (hey, if at first you don’t succeed …!).

Wherever in the world you may be, I’m sure there will be Lunar New Year celebrations in some shape or form so why not join in and take the opportunity to remake those resolutions? Which new year resolutions have you broken already? Which ones will you be remaking? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

bisous, mon ami

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