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LUNAR NEW YEAR The Diocese’s Vietnamese community came together in January to celebrate the Lunar New Year with Masses, cultural performances, food, dragon and lion dancers and more. The four parishes that held the largest celebrations were Our Lady of Hope, San Bernardino; St. George, Ontario; the Shrine of the Presentation, Corona; and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Riverside.

By Anneliese Esparza
Managing Editor

Happy New Year! Yes, it’s February, but no, it’s not too late to say that. The Lunar New Year occurs each year around late January or February (this year it is on Jan. 22) and is celebrated by many Asian cultures, including our Diocese’s vibrant Vietnamese Catholic community.

Lunar New Year, called Tết in Vietnamese, is a very important celebration in Vietnamese culture. It is marked by traditions such as large festivals, visits with family, firecrackers, the gifting of lucky money in red envelopes and more.

In our Diocese, Vietnamese Catholics gathered for Tết celebrations at Our Lady of Hope in San Bernardino, St. George in Ontario, the Shrine of the Presentation in Corona and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Riverside. (A few other parishes with a sizable Vietnamese community usually host smaller Tết celebrations, with a Mass and party after, but the four parishes mentioned above are the ones that hold the biggest events.)

“We celebrate as a community together, to celebrate the Lunar New Year. We have dance, food, we can come together to celebrate our traditions,” said Fr. Trung “Dominic” Mai, S.V.D., Pastor of St. George, Ontario, at the parish’s Jan. 15 celebration.

Fr. Mai said that the Lunar New Year provides an opportunity to reflect on the past year with a spirit of gratitude to God. “Today is very much like a thanksgiving Mass, for the past year, for the bountiful blessings that God has given to us,” he said.

One big cause for gratitude was the fact that this year was the first since COVID that the parish was able to celebrate Tết normally, Fr. Mai said. The virus had forced the community to modify how they celebrated Tết by holding it outside or only having a Mass rather than both a Mass and festival.

“It’s very nice to have it back to normal, to do it for the community,” said Fr. Mai.

Hundreds filled the St. George parish hall for the Tết Mass. A large choir of around 40 people joyfully and tunefully led the congregation in song. Afterwards, there were singing and dancing performances, games for the children, and plenty of food and fellowship. There weren’t actual firecrackers since everything was held indoors, but there were some electric lights shaped like firecrackers that sparkled and emitted loud sounds, prompting much laughter and clapping from the attendees.

All ages were present to enjoy the festivities, from young children all the way up to the elderly. One prominent group was the teenagers from the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Society, who stood out in their uniforms of white shirts, dark pants or skirts and colorful neck bandanas. The youth assisted with making the event run smoothly, doing everything from doing the readings at Mass and setting up tables to running the games for the younger children.

One Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Society member, Nhat Tran, explained that Lunar New Year has similarities to the standard New Year, even if the specifics of how it is celebrated differ. “It’s our version of New Year, so like it’s just like New Year where you celebrate the old year and wish for a better year in the upcoming year,” he explained.

While the vast majority of attendees were of Vietnamese descent, there were a few non-Vietnamese individuals who attended, including longtime St. George parishioner Trudi Blair, age 95. Blair said that she has been coming to Lunar New Year celebrations at the parish for many years now.

“I love attending it. The Vietnamese really love their religion. They went through a lot under the communists ... some of us have lived in the United States all our lives so we don’t know the hardship that other people have gone through for their religion. We’ve read about it, we know about it, but we have not lived it. When you haven’t lived it, you can only imagine what it’s like,” said Blair.

At Our Lady of Hope, San Bernardino, attendees had the rain to contend with during the parish’s large two-day outdoor Tết festival, but the wet weather couldn’t dampen spirits. With a few canopies, umbrellas and raincoats, everyone was set to enjoy the exciting entertainment, which ranged from lion and dragon dances and firecrackers to cultural performances and fashion shows where children and teens wore traditional Vietnamese garments (called áo dai).

Our Lady of Hope’s Tết festival has been going on for the past 30 years, according to Uyen Nhu Nguyen, Our Lady of Hope parishioner and secretary of the diocesan-wide council for the Vietnamese Catholic community.

“Lunar New Year is more than a new year celebration. It’s an opportunity for us to live our Vietnamese tradition through new year activities and festivities,” said Nguyen.

The traditions are many, she said: aside from the ones that have been mentioned above like the lion and dragon dances, firecrackers and the giving of lucky money, other Tết traditions include decorating with cherry blossoms and with red banners on which lucky phrases are written; making special foods like bánh tét (sweet rice wrapped in banana leaf with mung bean and pork inside), roasted watermelon seeds and candied fruits; and going to elders’ homes to wish them health, wealth and prosperity.

Nguyen’s personal favorite traditions? Seeing children dressed in the colorful, beautiful áo dài outfits and wishing elders a happy new year.

Another member of the diocesan council for the Vietnamese Catholic community, Eric Phan, shared that what he enjoys most about Tết is the delicious foods. “So many memories bring me back to when I would sit around my family as we would make a traditional ‘bánh tét.’ Not much different from Hispanic families making tamales together around Christmas time,” said Phan, who is the chairman of the council and a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes, Montclair.

“Lunar New Year represents a fresh start, where we wish one another a blessed, healthy and prosperous year. All in all, it is a time for families and celebrating new beginnings together,” said Phan.

“We hope everyone in the Diocese will have a chance to come to these festivals to join and learn about our cultural heritage,” he added.

Lunar New Year 2024 will take place on Feb. 10, so keep an eye on our diocesan media for details of when parishes will be holding their Tết festivals next year.