|Young Mong girls wear new clothes for New Year festivities. (Photo: VNA)
Songs about spring have echoed around Mong villages, signaling a new year is coming soon. People are very busy preparing for the most important celebration of the year.
Everyone wants new clothes for Tet, especially for those festivals held after the traditional Tet rituals. A distinctive cultural trait of the Mong minority group is that women make their clothes themselves, dyeing, weaving, and embroidering everything by hand. The process begins long before Tet and is the most time-consuming part of the preparations, according to Sung Thi Gau: "The Mong women begin making clothes 5 or 6 months before Tet. The most beautiful yet difficult part in each costume is the brocade pattern which Mong women embroider by hand in a year."
Other preparations are made just before Tet. The traditional Mong Tet doesn’t coincide with that of most Vietnamese people, whose Tet comes on the very first day of the lunar year. After finishing the final harvest of the year, the Mong of each village gather together to decide when to have Tet. After the decision is announced to all villagers, they clean and decorate their houses. But Mong people don’t use brooms to clean their houses. Vang Seo Tin elaborates: "The father of each family goes into the forest to find a leafy bamboo branch which is used to clean the house. The Mong think bamboo can bring good new things for their families. Only the fathers are allowed to clean the floor and the ceiling."
Doctor Tran Huu Son, Deputy Director of the Vietnam Folklore, says: "The Mong men sweep away soot from the east to the west because in their culture, the east represents birth while the west represents death. They collect all the dirty things and throw them into brooks."
The Mong people decorate their houses with colored paper which resembles money. They stick paper on the altars, walls, working tools, stables, and cattle.
After finishing the house clean-up, they prepare food which they offer to their ancestors. The Mong men have a very important task which women are not allowed to get involved with: pig slaughter. Each family slaughters a pig and the pork is reserved to be used during Tet and even months later when they have to focus on a new harvest. Doctor Son says there are two techniques to preserve pork: "Mong people hang pork above their cooker to make use of the smoke to dry food. Or they quickly fry the pork then put it in a jar and pour a thick layer of fat over it. I’m sure that the pork is still tasty even 3 months after Tet."
Pig organs are offered to the ancestors. Doctor Son says: "The food tray of different clans has a different number of bowls. Each small bowl contains all the organs of a pig such as: the tongue, stomach, heart, liver, and extras. The food tray, which represents equality and sufficiency, is offered to ancestors at the transition between the old and new year."
The offering ceremonies takes place right after the sun goes down because traditional Mong culture says when the last sunlight of the last day is gone, the old year is gone too. People of one clan gather outdoors to pray for good luck and a prosperous life for all families of the clan. Then they return for rituals at home to pay tribute to their ancestors and the genies managing their houses, a very important part of the Tet celebration. Mong people offer a food tray of pig organs and Day cakes, burn incense, and use a yellow or red rooster to perform the ritual on their altars. Doctor Son explains: "Some families raise their roosters behind the altars with a special diet to use for the New Year Eve’s ritual. In each family, the father bleeds the rooster and waits until it is dead. It’s good for the family if the rooster lies toward the east but if it lies toward the west, the family may face bad lucks in the new year. Family members also look at the rooster’s feet to predict crop failures or other incidents."
While the father performs the ritual on the altar, the mother invites a shaman to perform another ritual at the front gate: calling the souls of all family members. Vu Ba Thong elaborates: "The Mong think each person is comprised of a physical body and a soul. If one’s soul travels elsewhere without the body, he is an incomplete person. So the Mong need the soul calling ritual. The shaman prepares one hen, one rooster, a number of eggs, equal to the number of family members, rice, and maize. The shaman also predicts what will happen to the family based on the feet and eyes of the hen and rooster."
All the rituals are completed before the new year, which is signaled not by the clock striking 12 but by the first rooster crowing. To wait for that sacred moment, all family members sit around a fire to tell happy stories about the old year and sing together. Luu Van Nhu, a Mong student in Hanoi, sings a song featuring the happiness when the Mong have bumper crops and sufficient Tet food. The song is commonly sang on New Year’s Eve and the very first day of a new year as a wish for better life and agricultural production in the years ahead.
Now, let's discover some belief and taboos of the Mong people.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism honored the traditional New Year festival of the Mong people as a national intangible cultural heritage. During the 3-day festival, the Mong people gather with close family members on the first day, visit and deliver Tet wishes to relatives on the second day, and go to spring festivals on the third day.
The Mong people rely mainly on agriculture so favorable weather is very important to them and their rituals at the beginning of the year are mostly weather-related. Vu A Thong says: "In each family, one person wakes up early to fetch water from the brook for cooking. Mong people never use water collected in the old year for home use in the new year. They believe that the person who wakes up earliest to collect water will make his family the most prosperous of the village.
Doctor Son adds: "The Mong people weigh the water they collect. The heavier the water, the bigger the bumper crops they will enjoy in the year ahead."
He says that Mong people, in some areas, fire guns to salute the new year. Son explains: "Farmers can not grow their crops without rain. The sound of gunfire mimics the sound of thunder. Rain at the very beginning of a year signals favorable weather throughout the year."
During the first 3 days, Mong people enjoy meals at home and at the homes of relatives and teachers. They have several taboos related to meals and cooking, according to Vu Ba Thong: "Mong people eat only meat, not vegetables, during the first 3 days of the year. Otherwise they will not have meat to eat for the rest of the year. They don’t use their mouths to blow air into cookers. That symbolizes heavy winds knocking down plants. They don’t eat soup. That symbolizes floods flood which destroy crops."
Mong people are patriarchy and this is reflected in their eating habits. Vu A Thong says: "Only sons are allowed to eat the chicken that was slaughtered on New Year’s Eve. This brings the family wealth and good luck. If daughters also eat the chicken, it transfers wealth and good luck to their husbands’ houses."
Women, who have been busy with farm work and housework throughout the year, receive more respect during this special occasion, according to Giang Thi Hoa: "On the first morning of the year, no one wakes anyone else up. Otherwise, they will be in a rush for the rest of the year. The men wake up early to prepare breakfast for the family and give the women more time to sleep."
After the first 3 days’ rituals are completed, it’s time for the Mong people to enjoy a spring festival and continue to pray for more children, good health, and bumper crops.