ROCHESTER — Greetings of “happy new year” echoed through St. Anthony of Padua Church Jan. 29 as about 300 members of the parish’s Vietnamese Catholic Community celebrated Tet — the Vietnamese New Year — with well wishes, firm handshakes and Mass.
The celebration traditionally marks the end of the harvest season in Vietnam, said parishioner Andy Tran.
“In our country this is the end of the harvest and the hard work,” he said. “It is time to take a break.”
In Vietnam the New Year celebration lasts all week, and most businesses shut down during that time, he said. St. Anthony’s Vietnamese Catholic Community keeps Tet traditions alive by eating typical foods, exchanging small gifts and celebrating for one day.
While Tet is not a religious holiday, Tran said that for Vietnamese Catholics it is a tradition to attend Mass during the celebration.
On Jan. 29, large red banners with gold lettering flanked St. Anthony’s altar, and yellow and red flowers were displayed at the front of the church. A few women in attendance donned red and yellow or gold silk tunics, while the three men who presented the gifts wore blue silk robes with matching hats. Deacon Joseph Hoc Thai Nguyen explained that this is a traditional form of dress at all major Vietnamese cultural and religious celebrations.
Father John Bosco Tai Pham, CMC, the parish’s parochial vicar who also oversees Vietnamese ministry, led the congregation in its usual Sunday Mass in Vietnamese. Just before the Mass ended all the children were called forward to receive Li Xi, which is a gift of money for the new year.
“It is tradition,” Tran said. “The money brings luck and more wisdom. People believe that what happens on this day sets the framework for the whole year.”
Tran said that parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors give each other Li Xi on New Year’s Day.
“We don’t really have New Year’s resolutions. It’s all about the lucky money,” said Mary Nguyen, 14.
Her friend, 14-year-old Anna Nguyen, added that at the end of New Year’s Day she could receive up to $100.
Money aside, Tet is a day for family and food, Tran noted, with families gathering together to eat a large meal and gamble.
“Gambling is a typical type of entertainment in Vietnam. You just try to get as much money from the other guy,” said Tran, adding that the holiday gambling is all in good fun.
After Mass, parishioners gathered together to enjoy many traditional Vietnamese foods, including banh chung, a typical New Year’s dish. Rice is a large focus of the agricultural harvest in Vietnam, Tran said, noting that the dish contains a sticky rice base and pork and is wrapped in banana leaves.
A game of trivia was also offered, with winners receiving prizes such as crosses and rosaries. A few brave parishioners also participated in karaoke, singing in Vietnamese.
Friends wished each other a happy new year before heading off to their respective homes and family get-togethers.
“At my age, this is great, to keep the tradition going,” said Thang Nguyen, who is former president of the parish’s Vietnamese Catholic Community. “We try to pass all the culture to the next generation.”
Not only does the community organize events for Vietnamese holidays and Catholic celebrations, it also offers its members free classes such as Vietnamese language classes for children and computer classes for adults and seniors, he said.
Tran said that volunteers also hold seminars for high-school students to help them apply for college and get financial aid. And professionals in the community reach out to college-age members to help them create their resumes and conduct mock job interviews.
The parish’s Vietnamese Catholic Community has about 200 families, mostly residents of the City of Rochester, Deacon Nguyen said. He noted that there are many more Vietnamese Catholics in the Rochester area, but they attend Mass at their local parishes.