This is the wall surrounding the altar at the foot of our bodhi tree, of which a small section of the trunk is visible to the left. All those small rectangles on the top of the wall are kitchen god statues. There are more at the base of the tree.
Today is the 23rd of Tet, a week before the Lunar New Year and the day the kitchen gods fly up to report to the Jade Emperor about each family’s activities in the past year. Last night, we cleaned their altar and put out fresh golden chrysanthemums, and mangos draped with votive money to encouarge them to give a good report for our family. A positive report will ensure that the coming year will be a good one.
According to legend, the gods leave at midnight. People in other regions of Viet Nam believe the kitchen gods fly to heaven on golden carp, and release carp into waterways to ensure that they will have steeds to ride, but this is not a custom in Hue.
Before the break of dawn this morning, my father-in-law was outside burning the offerings. Then we placed our miniature kitchen god statue on a clean plate and brought it out to the altar under the bodhi tree by the river. Each year, the old statue is replaced with a new one. Some people replace the entire altar. All day today, people in our neihgbourhood have been doing the same, and the collection of statues, old flowers and altar decorations under the tree is still growing.
The walled altar is for the souls who died away from home during the Tet Offensive of 1968, although not everyone in the neighbourhood agrees. Some say it is for the wandering souls of all important local people who died away fom home. Those who can’t be given a funeral at home, whether because they were abroad or because they were MIA, as well as stillborns and babies lost by miscarriage, cannot be honoured with an altar inside the house. Hence there are outdoor altars everywhere in the country. Nestled in niches of the gnarled trunk of our tree are several more small altars for people who died in traffic accidents nearby and for other souls of this neighbourhood.
23rd Tet is considered to be the first day of the Tet holidays, and the next week will be filled with ceremonial “eating the end of the year” (an tat nien). On the 30th Tet, we’ll have the most important ceremony of all: we’ll make offerings to see the old year out and the new one in. The following day will be the first day of Tet.