The X-word Files #3 – TET

Wikipedia defines “crosswordese” as “the group of words frequently found in crossword puzzles but seldom found in everyday conversation”. But here at Chris Words, knowledge is power, and everyone deserves a second chance. In these interviews, we learn more about the words that make up crosswordese, and what makes them so great.

Edition #3: TET
(has appeared 280 times in the NYT, 121 in the Shortz era)


In the third edition of “The X-word Files”, we travel to Southeast Asia to learn more about Tết, or Vietnamese New Year. To learn more about this annual celebration, we talked to Tony Phan, the Marketing Director of the 35th Annual Tết Festival hosted by the UVSA (Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California), which is the largest Tết Festival in the world. Even more appropriate, the holiday itself begins on Monday! We asked Tony Phan nine questions, and here’s what he sent us:

[Editor’s note: Tony notes that these answers were a collaborative effort of past officers, directors, and staff members from UVSA. I am truly grateful for the time and effort Tony and Co. put into these answers]

1. The name “Tết” is a shortened version of the full name Tết Nguyên Đán, which translates from Vietnamese as “First Morning of the First Day,” indicating a new beginning. Would you say that Tết for Vietnamese people is more important as a new beginning that New Year’s Day is for the United States?

11019023_667135060078908_4178931488412220166_oTP: Tết is the first day of the Lunar New Year, similarly like how January 1st is the first day of the new year in the United States. Tết is particularly important for Vietnamese people because it’s the mark of a new beginning, with the spirit of new fortunes, family get-togethers, and celebrating traditions. For Vietnamese people who are away from home, Tết is the time they when they get to come home and celebrate the holiday with family and relatives (much like Thanksgiving in the US).

In Vietnam, when talking about age, most people refer to their “tuổi ta” (“tuổi” means age and “ta” means our) which counts from the first Tết after birth. In other words, they consider themselves 1 year older, because babies start at the age of one year (instead of 0) when they are born. It was only during the 20th century that Vietnamese people began to adapt the “Western” age (“tuổi tây”; “tây” meaning western) upon migrating to Western countries.

2. Is Tết a religious holiday, or is Tết just a celebration day?

TP: Tết is national holiday for the Vietnamese. All Vietnamese celebrate Tết, regardless of their religion. In the olden days (perhaps prior to the 20th century), Tết was celebrated for an entire month. Later it was shortened to ten days, and after that, to a week. Nowadays, Tết is celebrated over the course of three days.

3. Are there customs or traditions relating to Tết that are widely seen in Vietnam, but are rarely seen in the United States, whether it involves financial reasons, American customs, or other reasons?

TP: Customs and traditions are seen more prominently in families with elders (such as grandparents above the age of 60), or people who were born and raised in Vietnam.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

Among the younger generations, especially those who were born outside of Vietnam, Tết customs and traditions are seen less. One of the main reasons is that most of the time, Tết falls on a weekday. Most people have to work or go to school on the day of Tết, which thereby limits their ability to participate in Tết activities.

The Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California (UVSA) has continuously organized Tết Festival for the past 34 years in Southern California. In organizing the Tết Festival, the youth (both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese) have the chance to learn about the Vietnamese culture, customs, and traditions; not only see how Vietnamese people celebrate Tết, but become a part of it as well.

This year, the UVSA Tết Festival falls on three days: Friday, February 12 to Sunday, February 14, 2016, at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, CA. Tickets, program schedules, and additional information are all available at

4. What are some Tết traditions that meant a lot to you growing up, whether it was a tradition often seen for most families, or just something your family did in particular? I’m told the red envelope is a popular tradition, especially for kids.

160129_uvsa_little_boy_holding_baskets_d2b9fb78c7acb7fb85bdf7c0b8db511f.nbcnews-ux-600-700TP: Some Tết traditions seen in the household include, but are not limited to, cleaning the house prior to Tết; decorating the house with flowers; cooking traditional Tết foods such as bánh chưng (square sticky rice cake), bánh dầy (round rice cake), mứt (sweetened, dried fruits like preserves); gathering with family members to celebrate; counting down the New Year; giving New Year wishes to elders and in return, receiving lucky (new) money in red envelopes (lì xì); and paying respects to one’s ancestors.

What young people tend to remember the most about Tết traditions are wearing the traditional Vietnamese dress (áo dài) and receiving red envelopes. Practices that are less common nowadays, particularly in the US, are gambling, fireworks, and taking off work or school for many days to celebrate Tết.

5. Obviously, we can’t talk about Tết without talking about food. Bánh chưng is a popular Tết dish, made from rice, beans, and pork, all wrapped tightly in leaves in a nice square shape. What made this dish such an important meal during the Tết season?


TP: There is a history about this special dish “bánh chưng.” In short, bánh chưng originated in the Hong Banh Dynasty (prior to 258 BC) when the King’s youngest son presented the dish as an offering to his ancestors. The full-length history is available here. Bánh chưng is as essential to Tết as turkey is to Thanksgiving.

6. This year’s Tết Festival is featuring an eating contest of both a Vietnamese and crowd favorite, pho. If you were in this year’s competition, would you have any tips or tricks of how a competitor could finish first?

TP: As with any contest, you probably need a lot of practice to discover your strengths and weaknesses. This will enable you to strategize how to overcome your weaknesses and take advantage of your strengths. During competition, in which time is not on your side, you’re chewing your food just long enough to be able to swallow without choking on it. We don’t advise putting additional hot peppers. In competition, anything that slows you down should be avoided. Phở is usually served close to boiling hot, so you should make sure you taste the soup first to see how hot it is before trying to swallow the first gulp. Practice will help the competitor get used to the rhythm of breathing, eating, and swallowing at a faster rate. Practicing beforehand also helps to expand the stomach and prepare it for consuming a great amount of food in a short period of time.

7. One of the most visual displays seen at any Tết Festival, and certainly at the UVSA Tet Festival, are the Lion Dances. How much time and practice does a team put into both making and performing a Lion Dance, and how do the dances tie back into the holiday itself?

TP: Lion dances involve a lot of teamwork, because there are two people beneath each lion. The person in front carries the head and the dancer behind carries the tail. Ông Địa, who is the lions’ dance partner, typically leads the path for the lions. Some of his characteristics include having a large belly, wearing a mask over his entire head, and being a merry, comical character to keep the atmosphere festive. Aside from the dancers and Ông Địa, there’s also the instrumental team which includes drummers, and people Screen-Shot-2015-08-06-at-1.25.06-AMplaying the cymbals and gongs.

Lion dance teams practice a lot to be able to synchronize as dancers and perform stunts safely. Some teams hold practice sessions for many hours at a time, for several times a week. Usually lion dance teams do not make their own lion heads and costume, but they purchase it from costume designers or manufacturers. Most of the lion heads that Vietnamese lion dance teams wear in the US are purchased from Chinese shops or overseas, which is why they look so similar to Chinese lions.

In Vietnamese, lion dance is called “múa lân” or the unicorn dance. Lion dances are typically only seen on special occasions such as the New Year (Tết), the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tết Trung Thu), and the opening of a new business.

8. As the largest Tết Festival in both the US and around the world, the UVSA Tet Festival is certainly a wonderful way to kick in the Vietnamese new year. What are your expectations for this year’s event, regarding attendance, public awareness, and celebration?

12440564_817236105068802_8355175570979026980_oTP: The UVSA Tet Festival is a well-known festival which has been organized by students from UVSA in collaboration with numerous youth organizations in the community. We strive to grow bigger and bigger with each passing year, therefore having the OC Fair & Event Center as our new home is an amazing transition and opportunity for us. Our goal is to make Tết Festival a region-wide event, not one that is just limited to the Vietnamese community. We’re constantly working hard to bring awareness about Tết Festival to residents all over Southern California, so we are extremely grateful for the visitors hear about our festival from all over the country and overseas.

In terms of celebration, we have more activities lined up for Tết Festival this year! Also, one of the main features of UVSA’s Tết Festival is the Cultural Village. Its theme changes every year to introduce different historical sites and cultural elements. This year’s theme is “Vietnam: 4,000 Years of Culture and Resiliency.”

9. And finally, what makes Tết a unique holiday for those who celebrate it?

TP: Tết is as monumental of a holiday to Vietnamese people as Christmas is to some… except combined with New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and your birthday! The fact that Tết has much to do with the coming together of family makes it the biggest holiday of all for Vietnamese people.

Extra links:
UVSA Website
Cultural Village at UVSA Tết Festival

Chris Words would like to thank Tony Phan, the 35th Annual Tet Festival, and the UVSA for answering our questions. We hope you’ve enjoyed our interview, and we hope you’ll appreciate seeing this piece of crosswordese in a future puzzle.

Chris Words will be back next week with a new puzzle.

Happy New Year!



4 thoughts on “The X-word Files #3 – TET

  1. grr where’s my puzzle? i expected a puzzle. grrrrr! ( just ignore me, i am mentally challenged.) and in a silly mooooood.


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