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Lunar New Year is intersection of faith and culture for Vietnamese Catholics

Diocesan News

By Marge Bitetti

CORONA—Imagine a single celebration as momentous as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and your birthday rolled into one.

 This begins to describe the significance of the Lunar New Year Celebration for those of East Asian descent.

 Vietnamese Catholics from the West End of the Diocese to the Low Desert and several points in between celebrated the Lunar New Year with colorful gatherings beginning January 21 and extending past the actual day of the Lunar New Year, February 16. 

 The Lunar New Year in the Vietnamese community is known as Tet. Through this observance the Vietnamese peope are able to blend their respect and remembrance of their ancestors and cultural traditions together with their Catholic faith.

 Tết Nguyên Đán shortened to Tet, which is “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day” celebrates the arrival of spring. The Vietnamese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, often the celebrations continue for close to two weeks. In Vietnam Tet is a national holiday; for the Vietnamese people who have come to the U.S. it remains a major cultural, community and family event.

 It is a happy time of bright colors, smells of traditional foods and the aroma of incense climbing upward to heaven. It is a time of tradition to honor native roots and the land that so many left when they immigrated to America.

 “At Lunar New Year celebrations the songs always mention the hope of someday returning to the country that was left behind when communism forced so many people to leave Vietnam,” said Matthew Le, a parishioner of St. Matthew Parish in Corona who attended the Lunar New Year event at the Shrine of the Presentation in Corona on February 10.

 In the Diocese of San Bernardino Lunar New Year Masses and celebrations were held at Our Lady of Lourdes, Montclair; St. Francis of Assisi, La Quinta; Our Lady of Hope, San Bernardino, which held a two-day festival; St. George, Ontario; St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Winchester; The Shrine of Presentation in Corona; Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Riverside; and St. Joseph, Fontana.

 The celebration at the Shrine of the Presentation started with special prayers to honor ancestors. Four men dressed in ornate bright blue traditional Vietnamese garments and turbans presented gifts and prayers at a special altar to honor ancestors. 

 “Respect for generations who have passed on is a big part of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations,” explains Father Paul Nguyen. CMM, Parochial Vicar at St. Mary Magdalene Parish and Director of the Shrine of the Presentation. 

 Gifts of incense fresh fruit and flowers were placed on the ancestor altar. A ceremonial gong was used after each set of prayers. A large outline of a map of Vietnam was on the back of the ancestor altar, in memory of the land that the people left behind when they came to America. After prayers for ancestors concluded the ancestor altar was moved to the side of the church prior to the start of Mass.

 For the Mass, the celebrants wore vestments of bright gold and red, which symbolize luck and prosperity in the Vietnamese culture. It is believed that these colors will bring good fortune. The altar was adorned with orchids and fragrant blossoms. The offertory gifts were brought forward by six women dressed in ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress which includes a tunic split from the waist to the hem with fitted pants. 

 Many of approximately 700 men, women and children who attended the Mass and reception wore traditional dress. Many of the young girls wore pastel colors while the older or married women wore more brightly-colored tunics. The entire congregation participated in all the prayers and songs of the Mass which were recited in Vietnamese.

 After the Mass there was a lively reception and the opportunity to purchase many Vietnamese foods. Some of the food available included: Banh Chung or square rice cakes, sticky rice, pho (soup) and Vietnamese egg rolls. There is also symbolism with some of the traditional foods. The square rice cakes symbolize the earth and round rice cakes symbolize heaven.

 A traditional Lion or Dragon dance was a lively part of the celebration. The dancers who were all men wore full elaborate costumes and leaped and swayed in a rhythm to the beating of the drums. This dance is a traditional part of the Lunar New Year celebration. The lion or dragon represents the strength of the Vietnamese people and the movement of the costumed dancers represents triumphing over the evil spirits. 

 At the conclusion of the dance one of the lions reached a high wire above the stage and grabbed a red envelope. Red envelopes containing money are given as gifts to children and the elderly as a form of good luck for the new year. The annual Lunar New Year celebrations are filled with traditions, joy and hope and as family and friends gathered to celebrate, eat traditional foods, and pray for blessings in the new year.

Marge Bitetti is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Matthew Church in Corona.