| By Fred Afflerbach

Vietnamese Parish Celebrates the Beginning of the Lunar New Year

On Jan. 30, Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Austin welcomed the Lunar New Year the same way they have for about 35 years — in the country’s traditional manner. First, they celebrated Mass. Then they flooded the parish hall parking lot for the celebration.

The high point of the day was the Lion Dance, a ceremony in which four frisky costumed animals and their mischievous monk sidekick warded off wicked spirits and evil creatures in a dazzling effort to spawn a year of good health and prosperity. At the climax, one dancer, who is the head of the lion, stood on the shoulders of his partner, who is the tail. Suddenly, a 12-foot lion in a brilliantly-colored costume stood on its hind legs.

Tommy Nguyen, age 21, was the head of a bright green and white lion wearing a yellow sash. (The lions actually look like giant stuffed animals.) He has been a lion dancer for about four years, practicing weekly all year. Performing the amusing stunts while inside a lion costume is akin to martial arts, he said.

“We have to learn how to make a lion look alive.
And learn how to do tricks. We have a set of special benches that we’re going to do tricks with as well. There’s a lot of teamwork,” Nguyen said. “For me, it never gets old. I enjoy it every year.”

Bishop Joe Vásquez celebrated Mass that morning and then attended the celebration along with various priests, deacons and, Father Le-Minh Pham, the parish’s pastor who emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as an 11-year-old boy.

“I remember as a seminarian coming to the parish just to attend the Asian New Year. It was small, but it was intimate,” Father Pham said. “We start out with thanks for the many blessings we receive. We respect our elders, so we have a gift for each one of them. It’s a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Paul Nguyen, an usher and parishioner for 32 years, was wearing a traditional bright purple smock with matching donut-shaped hat — called a khan dong. He remembers well the Lunar New Year celebrations of yesteryear.

“Back then, it was a very small community, it was only a couple hundred families,” Nguyen said. “Now we have thousands.”

After morning Mass, the parking lot at the parish activity center filled with folks of all ages, many wearing traditional gowns and ringed hats, and some holding parasols. The vibrant costume colors — magenta, gold, yellow, blue and especially red because it is the color of good luck — stood out beneath a brilliant blue January sky.

Hai Hoang emigrated from Vietnam at age 21 and is a diaconate candidate scheduled to be ordained in March. He said “Chúc mừng năm mới” means Happy New Year in Vietnamese. The party this year was particularly rewarding for Hoang because the event was canceled in 2021 due to the coronavirus.

“It’s a time when we create a bond between our parishioners … as a parish we all get together. And it’s a very good time to do some evangelization,” Hoang said.

After the lion dancers retired to their den, a band took to a stage with four flags flying above it — two Vietnamese and two American. A blue and red backdrop decorated with a map of Vietnam displayed the community’s pride in a far away homeland. Parishioners and some visitors played games such as corn hole, ring toss where the player tries to lasso a bottle of wine, holy water pong, and a challenge where the player wins a Coke by knocking down a pyramid of cans with a baseball.

But the longest lines, by far, were for the Vietnamese food.

Aromatic wood smoke drifting from the back of the parking lot was all the advertisement needed for grilled pork served on a stick. Greenish-colored waffles made with coconut milk attracted a long line, and volunteers served five flavors of cotton candy to the kids.

Hung Nguyen has been a parishioner for 25 years and volunteer coordinator for the last six. (Her husband plays bass in the band.) She said a team of 50 workers prepared food for about two weeks prior to the celebration. They made egg rolls, rice cakes, noodles with beef, lo mein and an ethnic sandwich much like a poor boy called a Bánh Mì Thị Nguội.

This year the Lunar Year began Feb. 1 and lasts about 354 days, which is 12 complete cycles of the moon. Celebrations in Asia can last up to 16 days.

Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish is located at 1107 E. Yager Ln. in Austin. Visit their website at www.hvmcc.org or call (512) 834-8483.