Local Vietnamese Americans celebrate New Year with family, faith, and hopes for good fortune

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

February 22, 2018

A young man sits on the top of a friend's shoulders as he places a donation inside a lion dancer's mouth during the Vietnamese New Year celebration at Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington, Feb. 18, 2018. (NTC Photo/Ben Torres) Visit the  photo gallery


ARLINGTON — Is there a holiday some children look forward to with more anticipation than Christmas? If you ask 11-year-old Justin Pham the answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

The 2018 Lunar New Year (Tet), celebrated by the Vietnamese and other Asian communities Feb. 16-18, is centered around family reunions, offering best wishes for prosperity, honoring older relatives, and rewarding children with “li xi,” lucky money. Presented in red envelopes by elders, the new bills are meant to give the youngsters wisdom, happiness, and good fortune.

For Pham, a sixth grader at St. Joseph Catholic School in Arlington, the day is all about playing with his friends and enjoying a festive meal with the entire family.

“Little kids get money so they will have good luck,” the youngster said, describing one of the most appealing aspects of the holiday for revelers his age.

Vietnamese-Americans living in North Texas, and other parts of the U.S., remain emotionally and culturally linked to Tet — the major festival in their former homeland. Traditional foods like banh chung (a rice cake made with beans and pork) are prepared and homes are swept clean to rid the family of bad fortune. Many households are decorated with a branch from the cay mai tree. Small yellow flowers and red ornaments placed on the limb symbolize luck, new beginnings, and the arrival of spring.

For Vietnamese Catholics, there’s a spiritual component to the festivities. A standing-room-only crowd of worshippers filled Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington Feb. 18 to pray for peace, as well as prosperity, during a Mass concelebrated by the pastor, Father Vinh Van Vu, CRM, and other priests.

“Today we praise and give thanks to the Lord,” said Liem Tran explaining the holiday is a three-day event occurring on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar. It is never a fixed date but falls sometime between January 21 and February 20. During the holiday, people welcome guests, visit with family members, and remember ancestors.

Mass participants included visitors of Vietnamese heritage who live nearby but are not members of the parish.

“Lots of people come to celebrate with us even though they may not be Catholic,” Tran added. “We welcome everyone. This is our tradition for all Vietnamese-Americans.”

In his homily, Father Vu referenced 2018’s designation as the “Year of the Dog.”

“He told us that just like dogs are loyal and faithful to their owner, we must be faithful to God,” explained Sister Theresa Vu who teaches sixth, seventh, and eighth grade religion at St. John the Apostle Catholic School in North Richland Hills. “God is always faithful to us and we should share His love with the people we meet.”

The pastor told his congregation not to worry about tomorrow but have confidence that God will take care of everything.

“We’re asked to live during the year with guidance from God,” the sister added.

A young girl places a donation inside a lion dancer's mouth during the Vietnamese New Year celebration at Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington, Feb. 18, 2018. (NTC Photo/Ben Torres)


During the Presentation of the Gifts, parishioners dressed in traditional Vietnamese ao dai garments and carried trays with five different fruits up to the altar along with the bread and wine. A colorful and meaningful offering for the New Year, the fruits represent the desire for bountiful crops and stress the importance of tradition and family life.

Lunar New Year festivities began Friday, Feb. 16 at the parish with a children’s pageant and continued the following day with a concert. After Sunday Mass, the pastor and other clergy stood at the foot of the altar to distribute red envelopes and scrolls inscribed with Bible verses. The messages are meant to serve as a spiritual compass for the entire year.

Honoring the most senior members of the Vietnamese community is a key aspect of the Tet festival so altar servers distributed a gift bag with wine and a rice cake to parishioners older than 80. Many posed with family members in front of the cay mai tree, displayed in the church’s vestibule and resplendent with yellow blossoms and red ribbons for good fortune.

Emily Dang, a Bowie High School student, was born in the U.S. but her grandparents and parents emigrated from Vietnam. Teaching young people about the Tet celebration is important.

“I like this tradition because it’s part of who I am,” the 14-year-old said. “Getting together with family and others gives you a sense of community. You eat together and pray together. It’s a really nice feeling.”

Benedictine Father Tung Vu returned from his missionary work in Africa in time to celebrate the New Year with his parents, Day and Mach Vu. The Arlington native was one of the priests who concelebrated the Mass with the pastor.

“The New Year combines a lot of different traditions: respect for parents, reuniting families, and love for children,” he explained. “We all pray and wish each other well. It’s a time of joy and hope.”

ARLINGTON — Is there a holiday some children look forward to with more anticipation than Christmas? If you ask 11-year-old Justin Pham the answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

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