"Cay Neu" & Its Meaning in Vietnamese Culture

Rachel Tran Rachel Tran | Published Feb 11, 2020

Tet Nguyen Dan is the Lunar New Year Festival and is the most important Vietnamese holiday. Tet is the celebration of the beginning of spring as well as a new year. It is the time for family reunions, exchanging gifts, best wishes. Planting a New Year tree or “Cay Neu”, Lunar New Year Pole, is also a Vietnamese custom which is part of the springtime Tet Festival.

On the days before Tet, Vietnamese families plant a “Cay Neu”, which is an extremely tall bamboo tree in front of their homes. The bamboo pole stripped of its leaves except for a tuft on top so that it can be wrapped or ornamented with good luck red paper. According to famous legends in the Vietnamese culture, the red color scares off evil spirits and the tree is supposed to ward off the evil spririts during absence of Tao Quan (the Kitchen Gods) who leave the family at this time to visit the palace of the Jade Emperor. “Cay Neu” are decorations similar to Christmas tree that is displayed in various cultures. Bows, arrows, bells and gongs are hung on the treetop with the hope that all the bad luck of the past year will be chased away and everyone will have a happy New Year.

Legends have it that long long ago, humans and devils co-inhabited the earth. The devils overwhelmed the former and invaded their land. Buddha told the devils: “I will hang my cassock on top of the bamboo, and wherever the shadow falls is Buddha’s land, and you devils must give it to men.” The devils agreed. So after planting the bamboo, Buddha flung his robe to the top and made the bamboo higher by means of magic; as a result, the cassock overshadowed the whole land and the devils were chased to the East Sea. Then the devils prayed to Buddha for permission to return to the mainland for a three day visit to their ancestors’ tombs on the occasion of Tet. For this reason, Neu is often planted on this occasion with green leaves, an eight sign amulet and earthen bells hung from its top. Lime powder is scattered round its base to allow the painting of cross-bows and arrows to chase away the devils or keep them at bay. The shadow of Neu symbolizes the land acquired by the men in the legend. The sounds of small bells and gongs on Neu remind us of man’s right to own the land and the bows and arrows tell us that they were once the weapons used to fight off the devil.

Cay Neu is ceremonially removed after the seventh day of Tet. This is the last ritual, which brings an end to the New Year celebrations.

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