Lunar New Year celebrations have a long history in Asian culture and this year a special Mass was held on Feb. 1 at the Vietnamese Catholic Center along with traditional festivities to welcome the new year.
For the Vietnamese, the holiday is called Tet and can be likened to a combination of Christmas, New Year’s Day, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, all in one.
“Tet New Year is very rich in traditions and symbolism,” said Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen of the Diocese of Orange, who delivered the homily. “Tet follows the lunar calendar,” he explained, which means it falls on a different day each year, but generally between late January and early March.
“For weeks before Tet, people make fruit candies with coconut, ginger root, lotus seed, potato,” said Bishop Nguyen. “Enough food is prepared ahead of time so that no one should have to cook for three days. Bánh Tét is a kind of cake, a special food for this celebration, which is made with sweet rice and beans, covered with banana leaves and boiled for 10 to 12 hours.”
A PARISHIONER PRAYS IN FRONT OF THE ALTAR AT THE VIETNAMESE CATHOLIC CENTER DURING A MASS CELEBRATING LUNAR NEW YEAR. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DIOCESE OF ORANGE
Typically celebrated over three days, the first day of Tet is for paying homage to ancestors, and on Feb. 1 parishioners offered incense, fruit and prayers of intercession to their deceased family members before Mass began. Hand sanitizer was readily available.
The Vietnamese Catholic Center is the ideal setting for celebrating the Lunar New Year safely within pandemic health guidelines. The center was dedicated in 1996 and occupies approximately four acres in Santa Ana.
“The chapel is very small, with a capacity of only 275 people,” said Rev. Vincent H. Pham, the center’s director. “The hall can hold close to 600 people and the courtyard structure is very comfortable for about 300 more people, allowing them to sit outside and look at the glass window.”
Mass can be held inside and/or outdoors.
Another part of the Tet celebration involves setting off firecrackers and performing a dragon dance.
“The loud noise of the firecrackers is meant to chase away the bad spirits of the old year,” said Bishop Nguyen. “And the dragon symbolizes good luck for the new year.”
Tet marks the beginning of spring when days begin to grow longer.
“People decorate their houses with flowers,” said Bishop Nguyen.
They use yellow blossoms which represent an early sign of luck for the new year. They also hang gifts in the house to symbolize luring the dragon of good luck into their homes.
“People wear new clothes and wish each other phuc, which means happiness, loc—prosperity—and tho for long life,” said Bishop Nguyen.
After Mass, red envelopes were given to families, each containing one dollar.
“It is a way to wish them prosperity for New Year,” said Fr. Vincent, as a sign of blessing of God to their family.
In the Vietnamese tradition called li xi, children wish Happy New Year to their grandparents and in return are given red envelopes with cash to use in playing little gambling games.
“It’s an occasion to visit, exchange gifts, give expressions of love, to send greeting cards and good wishes,” said Bishop Nguyen. “Tet is also the occasion to pay off debts, to correct mistakes, to ask to forgive offences and to be reconciled in families.”
In some churches, Tet is accompanied by a tradition of clergy giving out scripture verses to parishioners.
“Each family receives a scripture verse such as ‘Love your God with all your heart,’ or ‘Forgive and you will be forgiven,’ and they place that verse in a visible spot in their home as a reminder for the new year,” said Fr. Vincent.
Bishop Nguyen said he understands that worry about COVID’s next development is on his parishioners’ minds.
“We heed to pray for the end of COVID,” he said. “I encourage people to be strong in faith, rooted faith through individual prayer and family prayer. I wish for our community to
grow in unity and worship Our Lady of La Vang at the Marian court.”
In prayer, said the Bishop, now is a time to ask for peace.
“We thought COVID would be over by now,” he said. “There is a lot of uncertainty, fear and anxiety and surely there will be family problems. I pray for peace and freedom, and for strong faith,” he said.
“Looking back to the old year,” he continued,” we have gone through a lot of fear and uncertainty because of COVID. My prayer is from God to grant us peace. I once saw a poster in a cloister with an image of a man who was struggling on a canoe in a stormy lake, and the words on the poster said, ‘Peace is not the absence of storm, it is the serenity in the midst of the storm.’ If we have God— even in the midst of COVID—then we have peace. This is my wish for people this year.”