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Vietnamese Catholics revere ancestors in Tet festival

Vietnamese Catholics revere ancestors in Tet festival

Elders in traditional costumes perform ancestor worship rites in Uu Diem village on Feb. 8. (Photo: UCA News)

The Tet festival is a wonderful opportunity for people including Catholics in central Vietnam to perform filial duties to their ancestors.   

On Feb. 8, young people repainted altars and incense tables vermilion and cleaned candlesticks, ancestral tablets and other items of worship in the communal house in Uu Diem village in Phong Dien district of Thua Thien Hue province.

They butchered pigs and poultry and prepared food in the communal house’s yard. They placed cooked food, vegetables and fruits and glasses of alcohol on altars decorated with colorful flowers.

Village elders in traditional costumes knelt in front of the altars of village ancestors. Two elders offered alcohol, candles, betel and areca while others banged gongs and played traditional musical instruments.

Doan Ngoc Thieu, 80, prostrated himself four times and chanted prayers written in chu nom or old Vietnamese characters, inviting ancestors to return to celebrate the Tet festival with the villagers.

After the ceremony, the food was given to local families as Tet gifts due to the Covid-19 outbreak. In the past they shared meals in the communal house.

Thieu, a Confucian, said their ancestor worship dates back to the 15th century.

“All people have their family origins, so during the Tet festival we must show our filial duty to our ancestors and commemorate their great devotion,” he said.

The Tet or Lunar New Year festival runs from Feb. 10-16 in Vietnam.

Trinh Huu Su, head of the Trinh Huu families in La Van village in Quang Dien district, said their ancestors moved from the northern province of Nghe An to this area in the late 18th century. They established the village and cultivated over 100 hectares of farmland.

He said their descendants cultivated the land, held their death anniversary ceremonies and looked after their tombs.

Su, 76, said that after the country was reunified under communist rule in 1975, their land was confiscated.

“Now those who range in age from 18 to 70 yearly donate 100,000 dong [US$5] on average each to weddings, funerals, death anniversaries and other family ceremonies,” he said, adding that they proudly maintain their deep-rooted family traditions.

He said Trinh Huu families hold their ancestors’ death anniversaries on the 28th day of the 12th lunar month, two days ahead of the first day of the lunar year.

Su said they offer food, alcohol, fruit, incense and candles at their ancestral home during the Tet festival.

“We believe that our ancestors’ souls are with us and celebrate the festival with us,” he said.

Ancestor worship is a commonly held belief in the Southeast Asian country.

Mattheus Le Quoc Hoang from Nam Pho Parish said his family painted their house, which had been flooded last October, and decorated altars with flowers and electric lights.

Hoang, 64, who has two children and six grandchildren, said they cleaned their relatives’ graves and asked local priests to pray for their dead cousins ahead of the Tet festival.

He said that on the last day of the old year his family members offer God and ancestors rose, incense, fruit and banh chung — square glutinous rice cakes filled with green bean paste and fat pork — as thanksgiving offerings that represent love, solidarity and unity.

“We recite prayers to thank God for his peace and blessings to us during the past year and pray for our ancestors’ souls,” he said, adding that they also attend the year-end Mass at the parish church in the evening.

Elizabeth Tran Thi Kim Oanh from Phuong Duc Parish said her family performs year-end ceremonies on the last day of the lunar year.

“We offer incense, flowers, fruits and cakes before our ancestors’ altars at our ancestral home and visit their graves,” said Oanh, 57, who converted to Catholicism when she married in 1990, adding that they mark the fifth commandment — honor your father and your mother — by ancestral worship.

She said they do not leave the home based in her husband’s home district of Quang Dien until the third day of the new lunar year.

Father Joseph Nguyen Van Chanh, Gia Hoi parish priest, said the parish traditionally holds a special Mass on the last Sunday of the lunar year, giving Tet gifts and wishes to elderly people as a way to show filial affection.

“They are highly respected elders who set shining examples of good life and daily pray for the parish,” Father Chanh, 71, told the congregation on Feb. 7, when the parish offered gifts to 50 elderly people aged 70-98 dressed in yellow or red robes and black turbans.

The priest said local Catholics attend special Masses on the first three days of the Year of the Buffalo — they pray for national prosperity on the first day of the new year, for the dead on the second day and for good crops and jobs on the last day.

He said the local Church inculturates Christian values into national traditions and culture so that people can easily embrace Catholicism, which is seen as a foreign religion.

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