Christmas in Vietnam: bookending a long festival season

December 22, 2021 | 06:36 pm PT
Mark A. Ashwill Educator
Even though the percentage of Vietnamese who celebrate December 25 as the birth of Jesus Christ is in the single digits, Christmas has evolved into a full-fledged secular holiday in recent years.

A sure sign Christmas is approaching is when elaborate and colorful holiday displays at banks and other businesses, with faux Christmas trees, Santa's sleigh, and reindeer, begin popping up and lighting up all over the city. While Santa Claus has yet to visit every home, children are enchanted by the omnipresent decorations with parents hovering nearby, smartphones in hand, to record digital memories.

Some of the sights and sounds of the season, Vietnamese-style, include rail thin "Santas" whizzing by on motorbikes, young ladies in reindeer attire, toddlers dressed up in adorable Santa suits, and children singing Christmas carols.

One of the Christmas Eve highlights in Hanoi is joining the thousands milling around the St. Joseph's Cathedral, dressed for the occasion, hanging out with Jesus and his parents at the oversized manger, and soaking in the holiday spirit. Some are believers there to attend mass while most are non-believers just out for a good time.

On this one special evening, Catholic churches are magnets that attract people in droves because that's where the action is. In the north, the chilly weather enhances the mood, especially for those of us who hail from cold climates. Regardless of your beliefs, Christmas is a time of giving, fellowship, and goodwill.

While the rampant consumerism of the U.S. is beginning to rear its ugly head, Christmas in Vietnam remains a quaint and enjoyable holiday for many of us. Unlike the U.S., people don't go into credit card debt to buy gifts for family and friends. Most locals, who are at least nominally Buddhist, simply view it as a good excuse for an annual party. It is Westernization but with a Vietnamese touch.

A week later is Solar New Year's Eve, a fun time with parties, fireworks (under normal circumstances), and outdoor concerts. In Vietnam, this is only round two in a festive season that spans nearly two months.

A beginning, not an end

Unlike in the West, Christmas is the first of several holidays followed by Solar New Year and culminating almost a month later in Tet, the Lunar New Year, a much more important New Year to prepare for, usher in, and celebrate in style.

Tet the most important public festival in Vietnamese culture celebrated throughout East Asia. Notably, it also signifies the beginning of spring. It is a unique holiday that has no counterpart or equal in my home country and elsewhere in the West. For many people, it is the only time throughout the year to be with their extended families.

Therefore, Christmas has become a time when Vietnamese and the rest of us begin to get into the Tet holiday spirit.

Traffic gets crazier, people become distracted, business slows down, and shopping reaches a fever pitch.

Growing up in the U.S., I have bittersweet memories of New Year's Eve and Day. As a child, it meant the end of the much-anticipated holiday vacation followed by bitter disappointment. One last hurrah and then back to school.

As a professional, it was a one-day buffer between relaxation and rejuvenation, and the daily grind. In the span of one short day, everyone was forced to transition from a festive and joyful time to the regular routine and the uninspiring colors of winter: gray, brown, and white.

There is no cultural meaning attached to the Solar New Year’s celebration. It is a chance to say goodbye and, sometimes, good riddance to the old year, and welcome the new one with open arms, hope, and a list of resolutions to be better and do better. For those who imbibe, it is an excuse to eat, drink (copious quantities of alcohol), and be merry. One big, noisy bash, a day to recover, then back to the mundane routine of everyday life and work.

A comprehensive holiday

For many expats who are not part of the Vietnamese community, Tet is a time to take an extended vacation abroad. As a foreigner who lives among the Vietnamese, I treasure it as a special time to enjoy and partake in much like those who were born and raised here or who live in the Vietnamese diaspora. In a sense, it is an imposing and culturally significant bookend to the Christmas season.

It has been my privilege to be in Vietnam for 16 Lunar New Year celebrations. I have come to value each and every one of them for the annual opportunity to reflect, pray, connect, and participate in meaningful rituals that symbolize the need to tie up loose ends from the outgoing year and enter the new Lunar New Year with a clean slate.

Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, rewarding, and prosperous Solar New Year to all! Get ready. Tet is right around the corner!

*Mark A. Ashwill, Ph.D. is the managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company established in 2009. The opinions expressed are his own.

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