By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Chinese New Year, or Tet as it is known in Vietnam, is a lot more than dancing dragons and firecrackers, although they are certainly a lot of fun.

Think of Thanksgiving, All Souls Day, New Years Day, a major national holiday, a seasonal festival and a family reunion all rolled into one.

At Visitation B.V.M. Parish in Philadelphia’s Kensington area, the Vietnamese community’s annual fest has outgrown the parish facilities and this year moved to the nearby Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center on Feb. 13 for a day of celebration after an opening Mass.

“This is one of the most popular events we have every year,” said Redemptorist Father Bruce Lewandowski, who is pastor of a very multi-cultural Visitation B.V.M. Parish. “It just got too big for the parish hall.”

“New Year is a time of praise, a time to give thanks to God for giving us the old year and the many graces we have received,” said Redemptorist Father Luyen Dau, who shepherds the 300 or so Vietnamese who worship at Visitation.

“It’s a time to come together to share love and a time to build community, a gathering of the family like Thanksgiving. We remember not only those who are alive but also those who have passed away. We remember them and learn from them for our future,” he said.

Like Father Dau, virtually all of the older members of the community were born in Vietnam, where he said the faith is strong and it still is so among those in the U.S.A.

Perhaps a major difference between Tet in America and Vietnam is that it lasts much longer over there, perhaps a week, and also there is no snow. “It is a spring festival,” Father Dau said.

The blending of the traditions of Vietnam and America were unintentionally symbolized by the festival location. As the awakened dragon bowed before the altar, which was flanked by Vietnamese banners after the close of Mass, above it was a crucifix, and a very large American flag, a permanent fixture in a facility that serves mostly as a gymnasium.

Tri Ma Gia was a lawyer in Saigon before emigrating to America 35 years ago at age 25. Here he worked in the federal government as a bank examiner.

“I’m an American with Vietnamese traditions,” he said. “This is an occasion to praise the Lord and appreciate what people do for you. It’s an occasion to appreciate your neighbors, your family, your employer; to appreciate what we do with life.”

“I’m still Vietnamese but also American, I have citizenship,” said Xinh Nguyen, the chairman of the festival who came to the U.S. in 1981. “Everybody enjoys this; the kids are so excited when they come to it.”

Sister Danh Vo, a postulant with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart now living in Wyncote, came to America 18 years ago when she was 10. She does not speak perfect English and is not as acculturated as Gia and Nguyen, probably because most of her American years have been spent among the very large Vietnamese community in Houston, Texas.

“I’m still more Vietnamese than American,” she said. “In Houston we have multiple Vietnamese churches. At home we still speak Vietnamese, we eat Vietnamese foods and we read and write in Vietnamese.”

Tet, she said, “is the most important day in our lives in our culture. Being away from home this brings back memories and being among my people is a good thing.”

Spiritually, on the first day of Tet, Sister Danh said, “We offer the whole new year to God and ask Him to renew us and guide us, and we give thanksgiving for the year past.”

Andy Ly, 15, was born in America although his parents were not. He considers himself mostly American and generally eats American food. Nevertheless, the festival “means very much to me,” he said. “It’s a time I get to celebrate with my family and friends. It’s a great experience and I like to keep up with my roots.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.

Pope Benedict greets the start of the lunar Year of the Tiger

By Joeun Lee
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the lunar new year and praised the spiritual and moral values of the Asian people who celebrate it.

The new lunar Year of the Tiger began Feb. 14 with festivities including fireworks displays, colorful processions, traditional dances and holiday food in many countries across the world.

“In various parts of Asia – I think of China and Vietnam, for example – and in many communities throughout the world, the lunar new year is celebrated today,” he said.

“These are festive days, celebrated by these populations as a privileged opportunity to strengthen family and generational bonds,” the Pope said at his noon blessing.

“I hope that all will maintain and build up the rich heritage of spiritual and moral values that are solidly rooted in the culture of these peoples,” he said.

The Chinese new year is an important holiday that calls for feasting, spending time with family and giving gifts. In many communities, the celebrations start with a traditional dragon and lion dance to the beat of a drum, invoking prosperity for the new year.

The Year of the Tiger, the third in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, represents year 4708 on the calendar used by Asian countries.