The title of this article may have surprised you, but the Kitchen God Day, celebrated on December 23rd of a lunar calendar, has been long regarded as our own “Christmas Day” in Vietnam. For us, the Kitchen God Day is one of the most long-standing and important festivals. It also has a lot of significant religious beliefs attached to it.
The custom of celebrating the Kitchen God Day originated from an ancient Vietnamese legend. It involves two men and a woman, who are known as the trio of Kitchen Gods (Táo Quân). So here it is:
Once upon a time, there was a married couple – a husband named Trong Cao and wife, Thi Nhi. They were married for awhile but sadly they could not produce any offsprings. Because of that, the husband grew more and more despondent, every single day. Finally, one day he couldn’t take it anymore, so he asked his wife for a divorce. She cried and begged for him to reconsider but he refused, so she had no choice but to give in.
Many years have passed and then one day Trong Cao realized that he was wrong. Since he still loved Thi Nhi very deeply, he decided to reunite with her and to start anew. After numerous days of searching desperately, he accidentally stumbled upon his now ex-wife at her new home. But as it turned out – she was already re-married to a man named Pham Lang.
The couple had mixed emotions upon seeing each other. They cried and reminisced about the past for several hours. As Trong Cao was just about to ask for her forgiveness, Thi Nhi’s new husband, Pham Lang came home. Thi Nhi thought it would be very embarrassing for both men to meet face to face, and so she hid her ex-husband outside in a stack of straw.
Pham Lang did not realize that there was a stranger in his house. He ate his dinner and chatted with his wife, as usual. Sometime later that evening he decided to go outside and burn the straws to get the ashes necessary for fertilizing vegetables in his garden. And so he set the stack on fire with Trong Cao still in it. Upon learning what happened, the wife jumped into the blaze to save her ex-husband. When he saw that, Pham Lang ran after her. Unfortunately the story ends tragically – all three of them died in the open flames. But that’s not all.
The love of these three humans touched Jade Emperor’s heart so much in heaven, that he allowed them to live on together in a holy union as spirits. He also bestowed upon them the role of Kitchen Gods and assigned them a duty to look after people’s households. Well, and that’s how the story ends!
Nowadays, every December 23rd, a week before the traditional Vietnamese Tet holiday, the locals would prepare a set of three votive paper caps, some clothes, boots, plus three small live golden carps. The three Gods are supposed to take these items on their journey back to heaven and then report on the annual deeds of their worshippers, to the Jade Emperor.
Therefore, people started to set up a dedicated altar with fresh flowers, incense sticks, some baked traditional dishes, and a tray of five fruits to worship the trio. After the ceremony, the votive papers would be burnt, and the golden carps would be released into a stream of water, with the intention of saying farewells to the Kitchen Gods.
Finally, it must be noted that Vietnamese people chose carps as a symbol of the Gods’ travel back to heaven for a reason. The act of releasing the carps into the water has a very significant meaning. In fact, we have a name for that in Vietnam: “Carps leaping over the Dragon’s Gate”. The transformation of a carp into a dragon refers to the Vietnamese personality traits, such as sublimation, constancy, and willingness to take risks and to overcome any obstacles and hardships, in order to have a better life.
That’s the reason why the tradition of celebrating the Kitchen God Day has become such a popular cultural ritual in Vietnam. Even though this legend has been passed down through numerous generations – it still kept its meaningful value. What a remarkable achievement!