The Vietnamese culture in New Orleans has been on full display the past few weeks as Vietnamese Catholics have celebrated the Vietnamese New Year or “Tet Nguyen Dan,” at church parishes throughout the archdiocese. The “Year of the Horse” celebrations began Jan. 17 at St. Joseph Mission Church in Algiers, continued the next weekend at St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh in Marrero and ends Feb. 9 at Mary Queen of Vietnam in New Orleans East. This is the 39th year the celebration has taken place at Mary Queen of Vietnam.
Steeped in a rich tradition from the homeland, the “Tet” celebration has elements of the Catholic faith, the Vietnamese culture and the Chinese culture that has influenced Vietnam for thousands of years, including teachings of Taoism and Confucianism, said Tony Tran, parish coordinator at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Tet celebrates the birth of all Vietnamese people.
Tantamount in the New Year celebration is a New Year’s Eve “Giao Thua” ritual that includes a Thanksgiving eucharistic adoration, a reconciliation that makes peace with the past and welcomes the new year and an incensing of the altar, where the Vietnamese welcome their deceased ancestors to be present during the sacred days of the new year, Tran said.
Midnight home visits
At midnight, Vietnamese people living in neighborhoods surrounding each of the churches visit each other to exchange Happy New Year greetings and light fireworks in celebration and to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.
“New Year’s Eve is the most sacred point of time of the entire event for it is the moment where the passage transitions from the old to the new,” Tran said. “It is the time when the heaven and the earth unite as one and the place where the underworld of our ancestors (the dead) meets our world (the living). During this holy and sacred moment, nothing seems to matter any longer! Everyone sets his business aside, leaves all worries, plans and burdens behind to forgive the past and greet new hopes and good fortune in the brand new year.”
The actual Tet New Year’s Day celebration entails Masses, including a community Mass of the New Year and house visits to family and friends to offer New Year greetings that could include the phrases “Chuc Mung Nam Moi,” meaning “Wishing You the Best New Age” or “Happy Birthday,” since everyone embraces a brand new age on the first day of the year.
The TET festival weekends showcase the culture in food, music, dance – including the Formosan dance troupe and dragon dancers – crafts and a fireworks show. Local Vietnamese Catholics cook for weeks to prepare enough food for the annual festival.
Those attending Tet celebrations should note the rich symbolism. The Vietnamese culture is based on the Yin (the phoenix) and Yang (the dragon) philosophy of heaven and earth, good and evil and harmony of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth, and they are visible throughout the festival celebration, Tran said.
The mythological bird, the phoenix, “symbolizes the feminine, eternal life, beauty, fire, divinity and prosperity,” Tran said. The dragon represents strength, power, virtue and grace, as seen in the dances at the festival.
Also notable are the cherry blossoms that symbolize the beginning of spring; a red envelope given to children with money inside as a sign of good luck and prosperity for the new year; square rice cakes representing earth; round sticky cakes representing heaven and symbolizing the unity of our world and the world of the gods; and fruit representing a bountiful harvest.
“The Motherland of Vietnam brings forth her children to live together in harmony, bearing good fruits to the society,” he said.
Tran said the climate and geography of Vietnam and New Orleans are similar in that both are coastal regions. The Vietnamese people adapted easily to south Louisiana, and many settled here in the mid-1970s when they fled communism in their homeland to the United States.
They were welcomed in New Orleans by former Archbishop Philip Hannan and many remain in Village de L’Est subdivision in New Orleans East near Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, where they first settled.
Tran said the Tet celebrations preserve the Vietnamese culture for future generations while sharing it with the rest of the world.
“We try to unite different Asian groups and communities of the Gulf South regions, and we continue to introduce this rich culture to the city, the region and the entire country,” he said.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.
Tet new year’s fest
WHAT: Vietnamese New Year celebration, “Year of the Horse.” Featuring live local and international bands, singers, celebrities, cultural activities, games and exhibits; traditional, exotic and restaurant food; gift shops; and children’s activities in festival booths.
WHEN: Feb. 7, 6-11 p.m., with Archbishop Gregory Aymond participating in opening ceremonies followed by fireworks and live entertainment. Feb. 8, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Feb. 9, noon-11 p.m. Free admission.
WHERE: Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, 5069 Willowbrook Drive, New Orleans.