Most peoples in the world have their own New Year holidays. Every year, the Khmer people of Southern Vietnam also hold their traditional New Year, which the Khmer call “Bon-Chôl-chnăm-thmây”. The Khmer organize a New Year Holiday to express their gratitude to their ancestors and people who have contributed to the community; it is also an opportunity for people to make offerings to gods, people died, an opportunity to show piety to the parents, to pray for the best things to come to life.
Therefore, the meaning of welcoming Khmer New Year is no different from the traditional New Year of other ethnic groups, although the organization and practices are different. However, because Khmer is a Buddhist people, the pagoda is considered a center of cultural activities of the community, so apart from a number of rituals held at each home, most of the people gather at pagodas to perform rituals and entertainment activities there.
About a month before New Year, in most Khmer pagodas, as well as in every household, people start cleaning and decorating clean and beautifully. Sometimes people have to repair some of the architectural works in the pagoda to make it beautiful, especially the bones worshiping towers of relatives. Particularly for each family, in addition to cleaning the house, people also prepare all kinds of fruit cakes such as cylindric glutinous rice cakes, little cakes, gingerbreads, fruits, incense sticks to bring to the pagodas to offer to Buddha, monks, gods; and also to welcome visitors.
If Vietnamese, Chinese and some other ethnic groups in Asia celebrate New Year on the first days of January of the lunar calendar, Khmer of South Vietnam celebrates Tet in the month of “Chet” (5th month according to the Khmer calendar), about the middle of April of the solar calendar and taking 3 days. This is the time when the weather is very dry, the harvest is finished, when the members of the community are free and comfortable. Previously, the Khmer celebrated the New Year in the first month of the year – Mi-ka-sê month (corresponding to about December, January of the solar calendar), but because at this time, the rainy season is still not over, causing difficulties in playing for 3 days on New Year holiday, later Khmer moved the time to welcome Tet in the dry season as today.
According to custom, Khmer people usually organize New Year in 3 days, but in leap years, people organize 4 days. The first day of New Year is called “Th’ngay-maha-shang-kran” or “Chokul-shang-kran-thây”; the second day is called “Ví-ré Won-both”; (leap years Won-both 2 days); and the last day is called “Ví-re-Luong-sak”. Tet really comes when every house, every pagoda carries out a ritual to welcome New Year. For the Khmer, the ceremony of New Year’s welcome is something different from the Kinh, Chinese or some other ethnic groups influenced by Chinese and Western cultures. This means that the New Year’s Eve is not fixed at 0 o’clock, but always changes every year depending on the “Great Calendar” that astronomers have compiled. Some years are at 13 o’clock on the first day, some fall at night, some are at about 9 or 10 am on the second day. It can be said this is a unique feature of Khmer culture.
Traditionally, near the New Year’s Eve, every house (including pagodas) offers offerings on a table in front of the yard to celebrate the ceremony of seeing off the old Tevôđa to heaven, welcoming the new Tevôda. The Khmer believe that the gods are from heaven, appointed to earth by Prés-anh (Jade Emperor) to take care of the people and all species for one year. However, in reality, the organization of this ceremony is no longer as solemn as the previous periods. The three official holidays of the New Year festival take place as follows:
* Day 1 “Th’ngay Maha-shang-kran”:
Usually, around 7am or 5 pm, which means a good time, Khmer people wear clean clothes, bring incense and some other necessary gifts to the pagoda for the welcome of new Maha-shang-kran Calendar. Here, under the control of an Acha, people stand in line (from 2 rows or more) and then go around the main hall 3 times clockwise to welcome the New Year and also to see how good or how bad this new year is, how difficult and how advantageous it is. Natural phenomena would occur during the year such as rainfall, floods, thunderstorms, lightning, etc so that all members of the community can prepare themselves in the new crop which is about to begin.
The procession of Maha-shang-kran god is based on the Brahman legend “Thomabal-Koma and Kabâl Maha-prum”. It is said that the smart and talented Thomabal-Koma boy won a reason battle with Kabal Maha-prum, a god with four faces, specializing in teaching people in the world. In the end, he cut his head off, gave it to his seven daughters, and told them to put his head on a gold tray, and took it to the Thomamialy glass cave on Mount Kay-las of the Himalaya Mountains, do not throw His head into the sea or to the mountains, or into the air. Because His head when falling into those spaces would burn everything. The four-face head of Kabal Maha-prum is the symbol of the four virtues: metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy or empathy), and upekkha (equanimity) that everyone, including animals, must always have in their lives to achieve the fullness of life.
From then on, every year, on the day of his suicide, seven princesses descended, went into the cave having his father’s skull to bring it to Kay-las (Tudi) mountain, washed, and walked around the mountain foot three times according to the direction of the rising sun, before returning to the old position. This is also a symbol of proliferation and development (because 3 is a yang number and a number representing prosperity). A princess carried a tray of skulls once a year. Basing on the fate of the princess carrying the tray, people knew whether the new year is good or bad
Instead of picking up the skulls, for the Khmer people in South Nam on the occasion of New Year, people take Maha-shang-kran (The Great Calendar) around the main hall 3 times according to the legend above. After the procession of Maha-shang-kran, everyone goes to the Buddha to pray for the New Year. At night, continue to listen to the monk preach. For boys and girls after burning incense for Buddha, they go for a walk in the pagoda compound or watch or join in the singing and dancing happily.
* The second day of Chôl-chnăm-thmây Festival “Ví-ré Won-both”:
On the second day, the Tet atmosphere was really lively throughout the Khmer hamlets as well as the pagodas. From the early morning, everyone pulled together into the pagodas, they first burned incense, pray Buddha, then offered rice to the monks. Particularly for boys and girls, they organize folk games, then together divide the group to have fun until the evening. Currently, in the Mekong River Delta, some typical pagodas such as Sereyvongsa (Vietnamese: Hòa Bình Mới) Pagoda, Hoa Binh District, Komphisako (Việt Namese: Xiêm Cán) Pagoda in Bac Lieu City, Bac Lieu Province usually organize games for people. during the 3 days. Besides traditional games such as Chôl-chhung (Vietnamese: Ném Còn), tug of war, pushing trees, Lek-kon-sêng (Vietnamese: Bịt mắt bắt dê), they also organize some other sports such as mini football, volleyball and many of the modern games that we often encounter at the activities of the youth union activities.
Also on this second day, especially in the afternoon, people usually hold the sand mountain building ceremony called “Pun-phnum-kh’sach”. Khmer people think that that it would bring lots of happiness to people. As usual, people who attend the ceremony bring some clean sand to the pagoda, dumping it into a pile around the main hall. The Acha instructs people to form small mountains in nine directions and fenced with bamboo or trees. These mountains represent the universe, each one in one direction and the ninth in the center of the universe. After that, The monks carry out ceremony to become a Buddhist for the mountains and the next morning, carry ceremony to become a monk. Another meaning is that the custom of building sand mountains (or soil mountains, rice mountains, etc.) is a manifestation of magic. In the past, Khmer believed that mountains could stop clouds. Therefore, they build the mountains in order to stop clouds to have rain early so that people can start to grow their crops.
* The third day of Chôl-chnăm-thmây “Ví-ré-Lơng-săk”:
It is the ceremony “bathing Buddha statue, bathing monks”. Like the previous days, after offering breakfast and lunch to the monks, everyone brings scented water to the Buddhist altar to take a bath the Buddha statue, after that for the old monks. After the ceremony at the pagoda, the monks are invited to the towers containing the remains or to the separate tombs to carry out praying ceremony for the spirits of the dead called “Băng Skôl”. However, many pagodas also hold a praying ceremony for all those who have died once at Sala temple or at the collective tower. Finally, they went home to take a bath the Buddha statue at home, then bath their parents to apologize, ask for forgiveness of errors and shortcomings in the old year, and then bring fruit cakes, money and gifts to their grandparents and parents. At night they continue to worship the new Têvôđa. Some families invite the monks to chant and bless the New Year for prosperity. At the same time, they hold to have fun until late at night.
It can be said that the ceremonies in the traditional New Year days of the Khmer people in South Vietnam are still quite well kept. Particularly, monks’ bathing ceremony is no longer held in many pagodas but only the ceremony of bathing Buddha statues. Because in most Khmer pagoda today there are not many old Venerable.