Lessons From My Elders: Ancestor worship with Ông Ngoại
Growing up, I watched my grandparents light incense every morning as they prayed to our ancestors’ pictures carefully placed on our family altar. In Vietnamese culture, we pay special tribute to the spirits of our lost loved ones during special holidays like the Lunar New Year (Tết), during special occasions such as weddings, and also during the ancestor's death anniversary.
As a child, I loved celebrating the death anniversary because it meant we would have a beautiful spread of food, the entire family would gather, and we would get to burn ritual paper and fake bars of gold that we believed would reach our ancestors in the afterlife (fire is cool). It was a colorful and eventful day filled with stories and tales of our lost loved ones.
As my grandparents age, I realize that there are certain aspects of my culture that I have no clue about, specifically ancestor worship. Like a 10-year-old with a new Harry Potter book, I’ve been voraciously learning as much information as I can about our cultural practices that I don’t want to lose. So one day, I ask Ông Ngoại (my grandpa) if he would walk me through the process of ancestor worship. He was a little surprised but delighted that I wanted to learn since none of his grandchildren have ever expressed interest (perhaps that is why I am the favorite).
Our conversation can be broken down in two parts: the why and the how. I want to preface that this is my interpretation of what my grandpa shared with me as our family’s custom. I will not claim that this is how all Vietnamese families do it. My family is Buddhist so that also makes the process a little different. However, from my understanding, despite whatever religion you practice, ancestor worship is a common unifier in Vietnamese culture.
According to my grandpa, we celebrate our ancestors because we are paying tribute to our lineage, to pay respect and show gratitude to the people who laid the foundation for us to exist. It is also a way to bring family and friends together at least a few times a year. People move around for work and family so having face-to-face time is important.
Filial piety is a big deal in Vietnamese culture. I remember reciting poems and singing songs about obedient and devoted children growing up. If you don’t celebrate your ancestors, then you are bất hiếu (not filial, devoted, loyal, or respectful to your family) which is one of the worst moral offense you can ever commit in your life according to our culture.
On the death anniversary, one would light three candles: one representing the sky and the creator that gave life to everything, second to represent the ground and earth we live on, and third representing humanity and that we understand our place between the sky and the earth. There are offerings made to the ancestors such as tea, cookies, rice, fruits, flowers, and the occasional roasted pig. You then call on your ancestors for their blessings and support to help you achieve or continue to sustain good health, prosperity, and peace.
Until adulthood, I always asked for good grades and to be crazy rich. Only the good grades part came true. My grandpa told me later that you’re not supposed to ask for things like winning the lottery — guess he should have warned me sooner.
I never met any of my ancestors on our family altar but the stories that my family told have been passed down to me orally. I am the first in my family to be born in the United States so these stories help me understand my family’s life in Việt Nam and the cultural practices they have brought with them when they fled. I hope to continue these traditions and honor my family members in the way they would like to be remembered and share stories about their lives, hoping it provides some sort of insight or wisdom to the generations to come.