When lighting incense on Tet, remember it was born 3,500 years ago

Besides giving lucky money or going to the temple to collect fortune, burning incense sticks to pray for good luck is one of the Vietnamese customs during Tet.

The transition between the old year and the new year is a sacred time. Families often prepare New Year’s Eve offerings, burn incense (incense) to pray for peace and fortune. Each incense stick carries the respect and sacredness that the lighter wants to convey.

For Asians, especially Buddhists and Taoists, incense burning has become a typical cultural feature on occasions such as anniversaries, visiting pagodas, and burning incense for ancestors every day.

When lighting incense on Tet, remember it was born 3,500 years ago
Incense has many shapes and colors for each particular occasion. (Photo: Unsplash).

There are many types of incense with different colors, shapes, and sizes to use for each purpose. We have yellow, red or black incense. Large incense is often used in funerals, while spiral incense is hung at pagodas and temples.

In some countries such as Malaysia or Singapore, there are large incense sticks with dragons decorated around them. In traditional medicine, incense is used to cure diseases. In modern times, many people like to light incense sticks just to enjoy their fragrance.

Although burning incense is the custom of many Asian religions, according to historical records, incense was invented by the Egyptians about 3,500 years ago.

When lighting incense on Tet, remember it was born 3,500 years ago
The Egyptians burned incense to cure diseases and worshiped the gods. (Photo: Iseum Sanctuary).

In the Ebers Papyrus – a medical papyrus that synthesizes herbs of the ancient Egyptians, it is mentioned how they made incense, carried it in bundles and burned it to honor the gods and cure diseases. They have a pleasant smell, not too strong.

Burning incense is considered a ritual to ward off evil spirits and pray for good fortune. In fact, even the Babylonians and Greeks had this ritual.

When lighting incense on Tet, remember it was born 3,500 years ago
Types of incense with different colors, lengths, shapes. (Photo: Unsplash).

Archaeological evidence has also been found with incense burners found in the Indus Valley Civilization dating to about 3,300 years ago. Historians have found traces of oils believed to have been used to enhance the fragrance of incense.

Later, the Indians incorporated local herbs such as sarsaparilla seeds, frankincense and cypress to create their own incense.

The custom of burning incense appeared in China about 2,000 years ago, becoming popular during the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. By the Song Dynasty, burning incense became part of Chinese culture. The aristocrats built private rooms just to enjoy the scent of incense.

When lighting incense on Tet, remember it was born 3,500 years ago
A woman lights incense and prays at a temple in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: Dong Phong).

It is not known exactly how incense was introduced to China. Many theories suggest that Silk Road followers brought incense sticks to China, and that foreign traders such as Arabs influenced the Chinese in making incense.

From China, the custom made its way to Japan and Korea. Buddhist monks light incense and introduce to local people. Koreans light incense when performing baptismal rites, while aristocrats burn incense for entertainment. Incense burning has also become a part of Japanese culture since the 15th century Muromachi period.

When lighting incense on Tet, remember it was born 3,500 years ago
A person lights incense to pray for good luck at the beginning of the new year in Hanoi.

As time passed, the migrations of the Chinese brought incense burning to many Southeast Asian countries. In Vietnam, incense burning has become a custom in festivals such as the full moon of the seventh month, Vu Lan festival, New Year’s Day, Buddha’s birthday, important family days such as anniversaries, weddings, housewarming… used to worship such people as Buddha Ba Quan Am, Tam Tien Ong: Phuc Loc Tho, Tho Dia, Tao Quan, Than Tai…

With a history of thousands of years, incense sticks have entered the cultural and religious life of Vietnamese people as a traditional, close and sacred beauty.