For Vietnamese Catholics, Tet is a mix of culture, religion, tradition

Vietnamese New Year at St. Anne's Catholic Church.L-R: Chris Whalen, Nhu Anh Pham, the Rev. Tri Luong, Jennifer Le, Chieu Le.

Lancaster, Philadelphia ( Lancaster Online, Feb 17,2018):Everything has to be new for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

“The first day, we wear new clothes,” said Jennifer Le, a member of the Lancaster Catholic Vietnamese apostolate at St. Anne Catholic Church at Duke and Liberty streets.

“We wait until 2 a.m. to get a haircut so we have new hair,” said the Rev. Tri Luong, pastor of the apostolate and St. Anne Catholic Church.

Tet, which Le described as “the biggest cultural celebration of the year,” began Friday.

On Sunday, two life-size, white stone statues — of St. Anne holding her daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a child; and the Vietnamese Blessed Mother, Lu Duc (Our Lady) La Vang, holding the baby Jesus — will be dedicated in the parish garden at 10:15 a.m. The statues were made in Vietnam.

The Most Rev. Bishop Ronald Gainer will celebrate a bilingual Mass at 10:30 a.m. Luong will translate. A reception with food and entertainment will follow at noon.

The Eucharistic Youth Movement, with about 30 students ages 5 to 20, will form an honor guard in the garden and serve as ushers in the service.

In Vietnam, Catholics celebrate Tet for 10 days. “You don’t work or cook or clean,” said Le, a hairdresser who came here 27 years ago at age 19. “There’s no school. … Everyone comes home.”

Added Luong: “It’s more Westernized now. But in the past, we celebrated birthdays, families being together, respect of ancestors.”

Sunday’s festivities will include two traditions — giving “li xi” (lucky money) to children and blessings to adults.

Lucky money — new bills in red envelopes — represents elders giving the young wisdom, happiness and prosperity, Le said. Gainer and Luong will hand out the envelopes.

Le’s husband, Chieu Le, elaborated on preparing for Tet.

“You sweep the house the night before, pay all your debts, finish all business before New Year’s Day,” he said.

“And people try to be real nice to each other — no harsh words, even if you feel angry. You have to be nice on the outside because you don’t want to be unlucky all year.”

Chieu Le, who directs the 20-member apostolate choir, explained that the blessings for adults are Bible verses written on the tickets to the celebration.

“They are handed out. You open them, read them and take them into your heart for the year. You try to live that, keep that for a year,” he said.

One family prepares all the food for about 400 people who are expected to attend the Sunday gathering.

“They want to be anonymous,” said Chris Whalen, parish manager. “They’ve done it for three years.”

The bishop assigned Luong to the parish three years ago, when the apostolate was established.

“It’s important when refugees come that they have a place to network,” Whalen explained. “The Vietnamese were never given a parish.”

All the Vietnamese, Whalen said, have amazing stories of how they got to this country.

“They have such grateful hearts. They lost everything, but they are such joyful people. It’s been a really nice marriage.”

Chieu Le, who is retired from the U.S. Army National Guard as a pilot and from Armstrong World Industries as an electrical technician, came here 42 years ago.

“I flew myself out,” he said. “I was on a mission and was ordered to surrender, but instead I flew out.”

He recounted his story in a recent PBS series on the Vietnam War.

Nhu Anh Pham came here 27 years ago, when she was 21.

“My dad came here as a boat person,” said Pham, a pharmacist. “He sponsored me. I came by myself. Thirteen years later, I brought my mother here.”

Pham serves as assistant choir director. Her mother is the pianist for the choir.

Luong also was a “boat person,” fleeing South Vietnam 38 years ago.

“We can’t leave,” he said. “We have to escape.”

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