Guide to Dam Gio: The Vietnamese Death Anniversary Celebration

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Each culture has a special way to commemorate the death anniversary of their loved ones. In Vietnam, this is a tradition known as Dam Gio. 

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Many people celebrate the death anniversary of their ancestors because they believe that their spirits continue to wander in this world, should be taken care of, and also invited to visit. This is an important tradition in Vietnam that can be traced back many centuries. Next to Vietnamese funerals, Dam Gio offers an opportunity for family members to reunite and celebrate, with many of them traveling far distances to their hometowns for the occasion. 

If you have been invited to a Dam Gio or are looking to learn more about what this ceremony entails, you’ve come to the right place.

What is Dam Gio?

Dam Gio is the Vietnamese death anniversary. Contrary to what some might believe, this is not perceived as a sorrowful occasion. Instead, this is a festive day during which family members and friends gather to honor their family members who have passed away.

The ceremony is held at the house of the eldest member of the family, who is in charge of arranging the necessary elements of the ceremony. This event is usually celebrated once a year, and it can be in honor of more than one family member who has passed away. 

The purpose of Dam Gio is to provide offerings to passed loved ones, so they are comfortable wherever they are. The Vietnamese celebrate this event and invite the spirits of their family members to visit their home and fulfill their filial responsibilities. 

Confucianism in Dam Gio and Vietnam

If you are wondering why this is such an important event, it’s important to consider the impact of Confucianism in Vietnam. 

Confucianism was introduced in Vietnam during the Chinese conquest. Since then, the religion and philosophy has prevailed in many aspects of society. According to Confucius, one should always maintain respect for parents because filial piety provides the basis of one’s morality and character. In fact, due to Confucianism, families are to set aside a three-year mourning period when parents pass away to show the proper amount of respect and honor. 

Worshiping ancestors is not only a channel to show respect and honor, but is also a channel to ask for favors and divine help. Some believe that those who fail to show proper respect to their parents and ancestors could receive bad luck and misfortune during their lives. As a result, the Vietnamese people consider Dam Gio to be an incredibly important celebration to do their duty and show respect to those who have gone on before.

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What Happens During Dam Gio?

Dam Gio preparations begin months before the actual day of celebration. Family members coordinate and decide who is in charge of each task during the two-day celebration and ritual of Dam Gio.

Close relatives are invited for the two days of celebration, and they stay at the house of the host to help with preparations for the last day, which is most important.

Dam Gio is usually celebrated at the house of the eldest son. The ritual begins with food and meal preparations. Typically, the women in the family begin cooking early in the morning. They slaughter chickens, ducks, and other animals to cook traditional dishes for the occasion. The men slaughter larger animals such as cows and pigs and take care of chores for the day. 

During the afternoon, food and offerings are arranged in front of an altar, and food is served on the table. Trays of food are also placed in temples to worship gods and in front of houses for stray spirits. 

Once the family table is set with all the food, the eldest member of the family prays in front of the altar to invite spirits into the home. He then pours wine and burns incense previously placed in the altar.

After the ritual is over, everyone proceeds to eat and talk about the passed family member’s life and experiences. Later, adults and children will sing, eat rice soup, and play games until midnight.

Dam Gio: Celebration on the main day

The second day is considered the main day of Dam Gio. Events are similar in pattern to what happens during the first day, but they are focused on worshipping and offering gifts to their ancestors. More guests tend to arrive with gifts such as fruit, wine, and baskets with tea, nuts, and alcohol. 

The gifts are placed on the altar, and the eldest member of the family proceeds with the ritual of inviting spirits to the home, pouring wine, lighting incense, and praying. Once this ritual is done, everyone begins to eat and socialize, talking about their ancestors and eventually moving on to conversations about their lives and current events.

When the two-day celebration concludes, it is customary for hosts to offer their guests Vietnamese cakes to take home.

Dam Gio Rituals and Traditions

There are many unique elements that go into making up the ceremony of Dam Gio. Although the extent of the preparations depends on the economic status of a family, the main elements of Dam Gio include prayer, an altar, and plenty of food and drink.

Prayers

Spirits are invited to visit a household through prayers. The host of the event prays and invites the spirit of deceased family members into the house, leaving more than one tray of food if the spirit decides to bring friends along. 

The prayer may also include moments where younger members of the family bow to the spirits of the elders to pay respect and show honor.

Altars

In Vietnamese homes, people keep altars year-round to remember their deceased family members. Their altars tend to include red cloth, flowers, candles, incense, photos, religious icons, and incense. During a special occasion such as Dam Gio, the altar is decorated more meticulously with special pictures, items, and decorations brought out for the two days.

Dam Gio altar decorations include fresh, bright-colored flowers in beautifully decorated vases and two candleholders in each corner of the altar. When it comes to the offerings for ancestors, it’s normal to see many traditional dishes, fruit, wine, tea, and chopsticks set out.

The average altar is a wooden cabinet that holds flowers and food. Some families also include a large red or vibrantly colored banner that hangs down as the background of the altar. Other families have pictures of their family members on their Vietnamese altar instead of hanging a colorful background panel.

Food and drink

During Dam Gio, it’s customary to prepare traditional dishes as well as the deceased family member’s favorite foods. 

Common meat cooked during Dam Gio include chicken, duck, seafood, and beef. If you attend a Dam Gio celebration, expect to see any of the following dishes:

  • Braised duck with curry
  • Congee
  • Grilled beef
  • Pork rolls
  • Seafood including prawns and crab
  • Vegetables
  • Bowls of rice
  • Coconut drinks
  • Rice wine (ruou gao)
  • Traditional Vietnamese cakes
  • Fruit including watermelon and mangoes

What to Know Before Attending a Dam Gio

When introduced to a new culture, respecting traditions is essential to show honor to your host. If you have been invited to a Dam Gio, it’s customary to arrive with a death anniversary gift. This can be fruit, wine, or a gift basket made for the occasion. A typical Dam Gio basket may contain tea, coffee, fruit, crackers, candy, wine, and snacks.

Another important aspect to remember during Dam Gio is what to say on a death anniversary. Particularly, if the death is recent or hasn’t exceeded two years, it’s important to be sensitive about what is communicated to the grieving family.  In general, discussion, avoid joking, negatively criticizing or discussing sensitive issues that involve the family, and being indifferent to the family's grief.

Be mindful of the dress code. Although you are not expected to wear formal attire to attend a Dam Gio, go for simpler clothes that are casual but look nice. Shorts or dresses below the knee and shirts that don't expose too much work perfectly.

In the Vietnamese culture, remembering the death of a loved one and conducting a death ceremony is a filial act. Because the celebration is so closely tied to honoring and respecting elders, while at a Dam Gio celebration, it’s essential to give preference in food, seating, and conversation to anyone older than you.

The Dam Gio celebration is one tradition that has become an integral part of Vietnamese culture, and therefore, should be appreciated and respected.

Celebrating a Death Anniversary in Vietnam

People don’t speak about death every day, but we all acknowledge the importance of this event. There are many cultures with specific rituals and celebrations devoted to ancestral worship. In South America, people celebrate the Day of the Dead in November, and in Vietnam, this celebration is Dam Gio.

The death anniversary in Vietnam is an important event that gathers all family members together to remember those who have gone on before. By spending quality time with family from all over and remembering their elders, they adhere to the important tradition of respecting their elders and honoring their loved ones. 

If you are attending a Dam Gio, be sure to familiarize yourself with the rituals and their significance so you’re prepared to show respect towards the Vietnamese culture and the men and women being celebrated.


Sources

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. “Confucius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford, 31 Mar. 2020. plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/
  2. Kelley, Liam c. “‘Confucianism’ in Vietnam: A State of the Field Essay.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 1, 6, Regents of the University of California, 2006. online.ucpress.edu/jvs/article-pdf/1/1-2/314/339470/vs_2006_1_1-2_314.pdf
  3. Staff Writers. “End of Life Care: The Vietnamese Culture.” Culture Clues, University of Washington Medical Center, April 2007. depts.washington.edu/pfes/PDFs/End%20of%20Life-Vietnamese.pdf

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