Tet New Year

Vietnamese perform a dragon dance at St. Anne's Catholic Church in 2019. Tet arrives on Jan. 25, 2020.

The gymnasium at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, 929 N. Duke St., will become a dragon’s lair on Sunday as members of the Vietnamese Apostalate celebrate Tet — the Vietnamese new year.

Tet — which is based on the lunar calendar — arrives Saturday. Following a 1 p.m. Mass on Sunday, many of the roughly 200 members of the apostalate will celebrate the holiday in the church’s gym with food, games and dragon dances.

Tet is considered the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture. It combines New Year’s celebrations with family reunions. Ancestors are honored and elders give children red envelopes filled with money. Families eat traditional Vietnamese meals.

As he has done for years, Thuc Nguyen, 52, of Manheim Township, plans to host a dinner for relatives Saturday. The children invite their friends and they play bau cua ca cop — a gambling game played with three dice.

Meals include banh chung, a cake with pork and beans and made with sweet rice, and banh day, cakes with Vietnamese sausage. Rice wine is served.

“Tet is a major, major event,” Nguyen said. “(In Vietnam) they celebrate after the harvest and a lot of cultured dishes are based on the harvest.”

Some Vietnamese communities in this country celebrate Tet for a week or more. That pales in comparison to the celebration in Vietnam, where Tet is observed for an entire month.

“You might want to tell this culture to celebrate that way,” quipped the Rev. Tri Luong, St. Anne’s pastor. “The reason is we sum up everything (at one time) — the harvest, birthdays, thanksgiving for ancestors.”

Although Tet is not a religious holiday, the Vietnamese integrate faith into the celebration.  

“We thank God for whatever we receive,” Luong said. “It’s like Thanksgiving here.”

Jenifer Le, 46, of Manheim Township, said Tet is a day when “no matter where you are, everybody comes home.”

The first day of the new year is to be spent with family. The second day is set aside to visit relatives and the third day is to honor teachers.

Other customs include not cleaning the house on Tet — “We don’t even do dishes,” Luong said — and inviting someone special to your house.

Nguyen said families specify who they want to come to their house to bring good luck for the new year.

Sunday’s Mass will include decorations and rituals to honor ancestors. The celebration that follows will include food, games and, of course, dragon dances, which, according to tradition, drive away the evil spirits from the previous year. Some Vietnamese communities in this country light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits.

The celebration also evokes memories of their native land. Nguyen and Luong were boat people who left South Vietnam before the communists took control in 1975. They lived in refugee camps in various parts of Southeast Asia before coming to this country.

Nguyen said several boats filled with people sank when he fled Vietnam.

“That’s why I don’t go on a cruise anymore,” he said.  

Le’s mother left by boat in 1976. She lived with her grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) for 14 years before her mother was able to sponsor her to come to the United States.

“I feel blessed,” she said. “I got a second chance.”