Praying to The Kitchen God
Cúng Đưa Ông Táo Về Trời
Friday, January 17, 2020
Friday, December 23rd, 2019
Thứ Sáu, 17 tháng 1, 2020 (dương lịch)
Thứ Sáu, 23 tháng 12, 2019 (âm lịch)
In traditional Vietnam, Táo Quân (or Ông Táo) was assigned by the Heaven to be in charge of the kitchen and family affairs. Every year, Tết’s ceremonies kick off a week before the Lunar New Year with the tradition sending the Kitchen God’s back to the Heavens to report on the family affairs during the year. He then returns the eve of New Year with the heavenly judgement and to resume his duties in the family. Because Ông Táo is a family’s messenger that reports each family’s conduct during the year, the date of his departure is marked by offerings both to appease him for good words and to wish him safe travels.
The Story Behind the Tradition
Once upon a time there was a husband and wife named Trọng Cao and Thị Nhi. They were married for some time with no children and would frequently quarrel over domestic affairs. One day, Trọng Cao was drunk and become angry at his wife, so he kicked her out of their home. Thị Nhi sadly left and became homeless until she met Phạm Lang. They got married and began a new life together.
After some time, Trọng Cao realized he was wrong and went out to find Thị Nhi. He spent all of his fortunes along the journey and unwillingly became a beggar. By chance, he met Thị Nhi at her new home where she invited him inside for food and caught up on their current lives. While they were talking, Phạm Lang returned home from his hunting trip.
Thị Nhi thought it would be awkward if the two men met each other so she told Trọng Cao to hide inside a stack of straw in the backyard. Phạm Lang had brought back meat from his hunt which he began to prepare by burning the haystack. He unknowingly killed Trọng Cao with the fire before Thị Nhi could explain. Thị Nhi was devastated that she unintentionally caused the death of her former husband and in her grief, she jumped into the fire to end her life. Phạm Lang followed her shortly after as he could not live without his love.
News of their tragedy reached the Jade Emperor in the Heavens, who felt pity for the trio and appointed them to become Kitchen Gods with responsibilities to support the mortal realm. Phạm Lang became Thổ Công (Duke of the Soil), responsible for the kitchen; Trọng Cao became Thổ Địa (Earth Deity), caring for the household transactions; and Thị Nhi became Thổ Kỳ (Local Guard), overseeing household and market transactions. From that moment on, these three individuals have continued to monitor over households and report the status to the heavens at the end of each lunar year.
To celebrate the annual pilgrimage of the three deities on their journey to the Heavens, Vietnamese families celebrate by cooking delicacies such as new harvest xôi (steamed sticky rice) or cháo (plain porridge). Families with more wealth will include a whole boiled chicken, shrimp, fish or other special dishes. Altars are cleaned and decorated with fresh fruits and flowers. Additionally, three votive paper caps (and boots) are included to represent the three deities, which are later burned after the rituals.
The most important object of the ritual is a large bright-orange carp. Legend has it that the Kitchen God returns to the Heaven by riding a carp. Therefore, families usually pick up one large carp or three smaller ones kept alive in a bowl. After the worshipping ceremonies are finished, the fish are released in a pond, lake, or river symbolizing safe travels. It is said Táo Quân can only travel up to the Heavens with the help of golden carp because they are very good swimmers belonging to the Heavens. The carp are said to transform into dragons during this sacred mission to aid in their travels.
Enjoyed this article? Tune in the next 11 days as we walk through tradition preparations and celebrations for Tết!
- Tran, A. Q. (2017). Gods, heroes, and ancestors: an interreligious encounter in eighteenth-century Vietnam.