On the first day of the lunar New Year in Vietnam, the first guest inside a home is believed to set the tone for the coming year. That’s why the guest chosen often is young, successful or has other good-luck signs and is greeted warmly, said Ha Nguyen, coordinator of the diocesan Asian Apostolate.
In keeping with the tradition to start the year off positively, more than 400 members of the Vietnamese Catholic community and their friends celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Pig Feb. 18 at Rochester’s St. Anthony of Padua Church. A Mass in Vietnamese was held, and a festive lunch featuring traditional foods and games followed.
The beginning of the lunar New Year is known in Vietnamese as Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet.
During the first few days of the New Year, families spend time visiting and avoid negative or unpleasant talk, which might bring bad luck. Hong Truong of Greece, a member of the Vietnamese community at St. Anthony, explained that in Vietnam, extra time before the New Year is spent cleaning and preparing for visitors so that the holidays can be reserved for welcoming visitors and family and honoring ancestors.
During the New Year, families spend time visiting relatives, and on these visits, children give out good wishes and receive li xi, which is the name for red envelopes filled with money.
“It’s just for the fun of it,” Truong said.
Adults receive advice in Vietnamese on scrolls of paper. Such scrolls featuring Gospel quotes in Vietnamese were given out after the Mass by Father John Bosco Tai Pham of the Congregation of Mother Co-Redemptrix, St. Anthony’s parochial vicar and head of its Vietnamese ministry. Nguyen said she posts hers as a daily reminder.
“Whosoever eats of this bread and drinks of this cup will have long life,” was the quote on one scroll.
The Vietnamese-language Mass included many types of symbolism. Three men in blue robes, for example, signified goodwill, wealth and long life, said Tony Tran of Irondequoit. Their counterparts were four women who presented flowers and the gifts. They symbolized beauty, good manners, diplomacy and good temper, he said.
The symbolism extended to church decorations. On red banners that flanked either side of the altar, a message in Vietnamese was written in gold: “The New Year in America reminds us of the New Year in Vietnam.”
Red, for good luck, and yellow colors were everywhere. The colors are reminiscent of a delicate yellow Vietnamese flower that has a red center.
“People wear yellow, red or pink (for the New Year celebration),” Truong said.
In addition vibrant colors, pews at St. Anthony were filled with many young children.
“We try to pass on our cultural tradition to our young people,” explained Thang Nguyen of Greece, past president of the parish’s Vietnamese Council.
The next generation of the community is represented in such young people as Thanh Nguyen, a 2001 graduate of the University of Rochester who now works in its laser lab as an optical-systems engineer. He and his family came to the U.S. 13 years ago, following the path of many Vietnamese Catholics who left the country following the communist takeover after the Vietnam War.
“My parents didn’t want to live in a communist country,” Thanh Nguyen said. “We came here for the opportunity and the education.”
He was one of several young people manning microphones at a gathering in the church hall following Mass. There, members laughed, talked and bought raffle tickets.
They also ate a variety of goodies, including banh chung, a cake made of sticky rice, beans and pork that is cooked for at least 12 hours. The cake symbolizes the arrival of the New Year, Thanh Nguyen said.
“Everybody stays awake to see the New Year and because they are waiting for the cake to finish,” he said.