Tet celebration kicks off the Lunar New Year

By Michele Chan Santos
Senior Correspondent

At Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Northeast Austin, the Mass celebrating Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, is one of the most beautiful services of the year for the Vietnamese-American congregation. The church is decorated with flowers, trees are festooned with red envelopes and red ribbon, and many gifts wrapped in red cellophane surround the altar and ladies wear Vietnamese traditional dresses made of brightly colored silk.
For many Vietnamese families, Tet, the Lunar New Year, is a time when families gather, the elderly are honored and there are many gifts and special foods for the holiday. 
It was particularly special this year since Holy Vietnamese Martyrs welcomed a new pastor, Father Le-Minh Joseph Pham, just four months ago. Msgr. Joe Van Anh Nguyen, the longtime pastor at the parish, retired and is now pastor emeritus.
“It is new and exciting and I am still learning,” Father Pham said. “Transitions are always challenging. I’m coming back to my roots here. The parish is also getting used to a new pastor. We have a good relationship.”
In Vietnam, Tet is like “Thanksgiving and Christmas combined,” he explained. “We give thanks, we gather to thank God and pray for his continued guidance, and we exchange gifts.”
At Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish this year, the Mass took place on Feb 7. Bishops Joe Vásquez and Daniel Garcia concelebrated the Mass, along with Father Pham and Msgr. Nguyen. Also concelebrating the Mass were Father Matt Iwuji from St. Albert the Great, Father Hai Dong Nguyen from St. Mary Cathedral and Father Dominic Hanh Nguyen, of the Benedictine Monastery of Thientam. Deacon Hoa Mai assisted with the Mass. 
Bishop Vásquez began the Mass by welcoming the parishioners in Vietnamese, to great applause. He proceeded in English, and his homily was translated into Vietnamese for the audience. 
“I’m very pleased to join you for this celebration of the Lunar New Year,” the bishop said. “The new year always opens with hope. I pray you and your families experience hope as we begin this new year.”
Bishop Vásquez’ homily centered on the Gospel reading, Luke 5:1-11, in which Simon Peter has an encounter with Jesus and his life is transformed.
“The fishermen could not have imagined how their lives would be transformed,” Bishop Vásquez said. In this new year, “we should expect that Christ will move us. He will step into our lives, into your life and my life. Can we be open to what Christ is offering us?”
He talked about how Jesus has Peter fish from deeper waters. In our own lives, he said, we need to go deeper as well, to be willing to take risks. We need to be open to the blessings God wants to give us, even if we feel apprehensive or scared.
“God wants to use your life and my life for good. Allow the Lord to move you in a new direction. He will provide,” the bishop said.
At the conclusion of Mass, as part of the Tet tradition, gifts were given by the parish to the elderly and the children in the congregation.
Bishops Vásquez and Garcia presented the gifts, first calling parishioners age 90 and up, and then those in their 80s, and next those in their 70s. Each elderly person was warmly greeted and given a present; it was a moving and joyous moment, with lots of smiles. After the elderly were honored, children age 5 and under came up to receive red envelopes with money, and then children ages 5-12.
After the Mass, hundreds of people went across the street to a festival, where there was plenty of traditional Vietnamese food, music and a lion dance performance.
Then the celebration of Tet continued at the parish for two more days, Father Pham said. Traditionally, the first day of Tet is a day of thanking God; the second day, the community remembers their parents, grandparents and other ancestors; and the third day, they pray for prosperity throughout the year. He said many people attended daily Mass on the Monday and Tuesday after Tet.
Phong Nguyen, 74, has been a parishioner at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs for more than 25 years.
The New Year’s celebration, he said, symbolizes that “every New Year is a new opportunity, for the parish, for the families, for our community. It’s the opportunity for a fresh start.”