‘Very sacred time of the year’: Here’s how Utah’s Vietnamese community celebrates Lunar New Year

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(ABC4) — Friday is Lunar New Year, a significant holiday celebrated in many Asian countries with a focus on ushering in the new year with loved ones.

Utah’s Vietnamese community welcomed in 2021, the Year of the Ox with a celebration that, in the States, usually lasts three days.

Susie Ahrens, who celebrates Lunar New Year, says that it is a family-centered holiday comparable to Christmas.

“Everybody, all the kids that have moved out or gone somewhere, they all try to come home for New Year… during that time, we have a lot of food, a lot of games,” she says.

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Ahrens tells ABC4 that in the old days in Vietnam, New Year was celebrated for a week or even a month, with people taking a whole month off just to celebrate. When the Vietnam War escalated, the holiday was shortened to three days, Ahrens says.

An important aspect of this sacred holiday is not only spending time with living family, but feeling close to deceased relatives, she explains.

“The family will guide the deceased members of the family, like ancestors, to come home to celebrate with them by making a lot of food and flowers and fruit. There are typical, traditional foods that we have only on New Year. They believe that the spirit of the ancestor will come home and celebrate with the whole family, and that’s why it’s important for everybody to come home and get together and have dinner and lunch and then they play games,” she says.

Ahrens provided the following photos.

Ahrens says that ancestors are invited into the home to join the family in celebration and watch the family grow.

“There’s always more grandkids and great grandkids and so on, and also they bless us to keep us safe,” she says. “We always pray that they protect us and watch over us.”

During that time, Ahrens says, cleaning and hard work is put off due to the belief that hard work on the New Year will lead to a year of toil.

“They don’t even sweep the floor because we believe that we don’t want to sweep our money out the door,” she says.

“So basically, it’s just a time for celebration and a time for family to get together. The custom is that we all have a lot of food and we all have new clothes. Everybody always has new clothes, and they have to get their hair done and get manicures.”

The new clothes are a symbol of wealth and prosperity in the new year, she says. It’s very important to not only wish someone a happy new year, but a prosperous and healthy year.

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When asked what she most enjoys about the New Year celebration, Ahrens explains the significance of the holiday.

“I would think that every Asian loves new year because it’s a time of celebration. It’s a time to reflect on the last year, and we welcome the new things. We want to have a happy year, and we want to forget all the sorrow and all the bad things that happened. We want to leave that behind and we want to start over,” she says. “It’s a time to renew friendship, a time to forgive, and it is a very sacred time of the year for us.”

She explains that people take part in a lion dance to bring good luck and firecrackers to chase away the ill spirits. Giving also plays a role in the holiday.

“Like Christmas here, everyone gives gifts, but on Lunar New Year, our tradition is to give money. And it’s not the amount that counts, it depends on the financial situation, and normally they give it in a red envelope,” Ahrens states.

She says that people often give money- “lucky money”- to the elderly and children. Another tradition is to make savory rice cakes as an offering to ancestors.

Leading up to the New Year, families will decorate their homes with pink and yellow flowers and might give it a fresh coat of paint. These colors are often seen at typical Vietnamese alters along with a food offering for ancestors.

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Ahrens explains that New Year’s Eve is a particularly sacred time when families will pray and put out flowers and fruit, as well as visit churches and temples for a ceremony and prayer session.

“They pray to the higher being to bring peace to the earth and that no tragedies or anything bad can happen to mankind,” she says. “It’s important to do it right at midnight on New Year’s Eve.”

New Year’s Day is a big day, Ahrens says.

“In the morning we get up, clean up, and get dressed. Then normally children go wish to parents and grandparents, like a line at a wedding, they wish them health and happiness,” she states. “The parents or grandparents will give them the envelope- the lucky money.”

People will wear their new clothes and spend the day eating and playing games. Ahrens says New Year is a time of unity to put aside ill feelings and sadness and look forward to a better year. She says especially last year with COVID-19, she is happy that 2020 is over and excited for a better year.

“It’s a fun time of the year. It’s a sacred time of the year. It’s a time to get together… However a westerner feels about Christmas is how we feel about New Year,” she says. “It’s for all religions. It’s not just for one religion; it’s for everybody.”

Kim Le is also a member of the Vietnamese community who grew up celebrating Lunar New Year. She says for her personally, the consistency of the holiday is comforting.

Le provided the following photos.

“Every year when new year comes up, I’m always going to have Banh tet (traditional food) , always going to get Li xi (red envelopes), always going to see my family, and I’m always going to get in a long dress. Those four things are so consistent every year, and being able to experience that over and over and over with my family is just really comforting for me,” she says.

She says these and other traditions are ones she will continue throughout her life. Attire and food are a part of those traditions.

“People really jump into their cultural attire, which is really only worn on special occasions like New Year and weddings mostly,” she explains. “So it’s a really special occasion, and we get to eat foods that take a really long time to make and we only have it once a year too.”

On Thursday night, Le says she went to her mom’s home and went to the Buddhist Temple to receive a blessing. On Friday, she typically calls her relatives to wish them a happy new year full of love and prosperity.

“During that time, family gather. We eat a lot of food. There’s always an abundance of laughter, joy and love,” she says.

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