Affluence and status-mongering could distort the meaning and purpose of a venerable custom
A ceremony held to celebrate longevity for both parents in Hanoi
“Kinh gia, gia de tuoi cho” – Respect the elders and you will live for as long as they do, goes a well-known Vietnamese saying.
Hence, the older the elder, the more respect she/he deserves – and gets.
In Vietnam, the strong tradition of paying homage to ancestors and respecting elders finds expression in the longevity ceremony that is held in the early days of the Lunar New Year.
It is not clear when the first ceremony was held, but it has been held for a long while, said my grandfather, now 86. The first one is held when the person is 70, and repeated every five years till the person passes away, he added.
“This is a nice custom. The celebration can be better understood as a way of expressing our gratitude and respect to the predecessors for all the things that they have done for us.
“This ceremony, called Le Mung Tho in Vietnamese, is normally held during spring time, mostly during the first days of the Lunar New Year,” my grandfather continued. “As most people born during my time don’t have the custom of organizing birthday ceremonies, we consider the Lunar New Year as a mark to count our ages.”
The longevity celebration is a traditional, formal ceremony with some simple but stylized rituals. It can be held at home by the elder’s children or at a public place like a communal house, a meeting room, etc. by a public association which organizes a group party for all the elders who have reached a certain age.
Whether it is a large or small event, the ceremony is always a joyful, happy occasion for family members, friends, and of course, the elder in the house who is being feted.
Today, there is an association for elderly people in almost every village and urban district that organizes many events for its members, including the longevity ceremony.
POPULAR WISHES FOR ELDERLY IN TET HOLIDAY
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The place where the ceremony takes place, often the communal house, is decorated very beautifully on that day with red carpets, colorful flowers and a notice-board with the names of people being honored.
To begin the ceremony, the eldest man in the association lights some joss sticks and kowtows in front of an altar inside the house to pray for the health, prosperity and happiness of all people in the community. He will then read out the names of the people being honored that day and pray for their good health and happiness. Families who have their parents being honored will prepare a tray of offerings including fruits and cakes for the gods to thank them for blessing their parents so that they can lead a long life.
Once the prayers are over, people will approach the elders, who are dressed in traditional long red dresses, to present gifts and express their best wishes.
Many people hold the celebration in their own homes. These ceremonies can be small or big events, depending on each family’s wish and ability. However, all the close family members and friends are usually expected attend the event. Some rituals will be observed first at the family altar, with people gathering around to place offerings and expressing thanks to the ancestors for blessing their parents. Then the old parent, dressed in the traditional long red dress, sits on a chair and each of the children and grandchildren will present gifts, mostly clothes or restoratives and best wishes. Finally, a party will be held to complete the event.
“People say we will be lucky children when we have old parents or grandparents living with us,” said Tran Thanh Mui from Hanoi at a party celebrating his great-grandfather’s 90th ‘birthday’. It’s true because old people have a treasure of valuable experiences for us to learn from. My great- grandpa is weak now but is of sound mind still.”
Missing the point
As people’s living standards have improved over the last few decades, and it has become to show off one’s affluence and status, the ceremony has also turned into an opportunity to be exploited.
Stories of a high-ranking official holding an extravagant longevity ceremony for his parent in order to receive lavish gifts from his staff and friends are not very uncommon these days. But it also an approach that is self-defeating finally, because it sets tongues wagging.
“What’s important is how children behave towards their parents every day,” my grandfather said. “A big celebration will not necessarily show children’s gratitude to their parents.”