When children organize a birthday party, or “Tay Khoan”, for a parent, they not only wish them a healthy and joyful life but also commemorate their “death day” in advance as after the parent passes away,  annual death anniversaries will not be held.

Nong Van Thiet of Dong Ca village, Yen The district, is preparing to celebrate his first birthday party. His brothers, sisters, and neighbors have come to congratulate him and share the occasion with him and his family.

“I am very happy to celebrate my first birthday party with my children and friends. I will have to throw the first 3 birthday parties. After that, it is not compulsory” Thiet said.

Thiet’s son, Nong Van Dam, looks even happier. He says this is an opportunity for his brothers and sisters to show gratitude to their father. Dam said he has long been looking forward to this occasion.

“Organizing a birthday party for your father is meaningful. My family hopes to do this every year to wish my father good health. This is a time for us to show our gratitude to him,” Dam elaborated.

Dam said the preparations for this event are similar to those for a longevity wishing ceremony in other communities. 

“The first year, my family has to prepare the food for the party. A year in advance, we start raising chickens and pigs. My father will invite his friends and relatives. The second year, the invitees bring chickens and rice. If our father is not well, his children have to invite the guests to his birthday party,” he added.

Hoang Van Tan, the shaman for Mr. Thiet’s birthday ceremony, says not everyone can celebrate a birthday party.

“Only those who are at least 49 years old and have a grandchild can have a birthday ceremony. Even people who are in their 70s but have no grandchild can’t celebrate a birthday,” he said.

A child’s filial duty is to take good care of his parents while they are alive, because after they die, they can no longer enjoy the child’s offerings. So Nung people organize a birthday party for a parent whenever they can. Lu Tien Canh of Dong Nhan village says children must treasure the days when their parents are still alive.

“Nung people don’t celebrate death anniversaries. When parents are still alive, we celebrate their birthday with their offspring, friends, and neighbors. After a person dies, there may be 49-day and 100-day ceremonies, but no death anniversaries,” Canh said.

The Nung people’s birthday ritual includes “repairing the life tree” to wish good health for the birthday person. This is carried out by shamans who are qualified to get ghosts to repair the life tree.

Phuong Van Tinh of Canh Nau ward said there are several worship rituals in a birthday ceremony. The shaman is responsible for directing ghosts to find damaged spots in the life tree and fix them to prevent the life tree from being broken. The ritual requires clothes and a bamboo tree with a white scarf on it.

“The clothes are for collecting the souls left behind when we go out to the fields or the forest to work. It takes half an hour to complete the ritual. The shaman gives the ghosts rice, meat, and water before sending them out to bring the birthday person’s souls back,” Tinh explained.

Shaman Hoang Van Tan of Canh Nau said the required items are rice, some candles, a bell, and a knife.

“You need 7 candles for a man, and 9 for a woman. If you don’t have candles, use paper soaked in pig fat. After being collected, the souls will come into these clothes,” Tan said.

After the ceremony to collect lost souls and repair the life tree, “Then” singing, a traditional art form of the Tay and Nung minority groups, will begin. Nong Van Dam said, “A female singer will perform ‘Then’ songs to congratulate the birthday person and wish him or her good health and a joyful life. A normal ceremony lasts from 7pm to 4am the next day. A simplified ceremony lasts 4 hours.”

Preparations for the ceremony are not complicated if the family is poor, but a simple banquet offered to your relatives, friends, and neighbors, is obligatory. Mr Thiet said, “You just need to cook some food for your grandchildren and guests. More prosperous families will prepare some pigs and chickens. In the old days, we just needed a chicken and a cup of rice. Now children often offer some money as a present for a grandparent on their birthday. The shaman helps us convey our offerings to our ancestors. If we don’t do it, we will not have anything to eat after death.”

The role of a medium in a birthday ceremony is important as he is the bridge between the human world and supernatural forces. The medium informs ancestors that the family is wealthy enough this year to hold a birthday ceremony.

One of the most interesting rituals in the ceremony is Hao Lung, a prayer for a long life for the birthday person. Each son or daughter prepares rice, chicken, or money to give to their parent. Nong Van Dam said, “In the Hao Lung ritual, the shaman calls the first child to put into a box his offerings, which usually include money and 3 bowls of rice. The next child follows suit. This shows our desire to extend our father’s life.”

The Hao Lung ritual also symbolizes saving food for the parent’s afterlife. Each year, during the birthday ceremony, the shaman checks the box of rice and asks the children to fill it up if it is not full. Nong Van Tinh said, “The box of rice represents a stockpile for the birthday person. When they die, they will still be fed in the afterlife.”

After the Hao Lung ritual, everybody enjoys the food and delivers their best wishes to the birthday person.