Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - Tết Nguyên Đán, or “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day,” is the biggest celebration of the year for Vietnamese people.
From the U.S. perspective, Tết is like a combination of New Year’s, Thanksgiving, the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. and the best summer carnival you’ve ever attended, all rolled into one.
In the days leading up to Tết, houses are scrubbed from top to bottom, new clothing is prepared, debts are paid off. It’s an opportunity to gather with family and friends and start the New Year fresh and filled with joy.
The Vietnamese Sisters of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Mercy look forward to Tết every year. One of the ways they celebrate every year is by sharing this wonderful occasion with the children who attend the childcare program they manage, Little Flowers Daycare.
Sister Rosario Hoang, CMRM, superior of the Lincoln community, said there are only a handful of Vietnamese children at Little Flowers Daycare.
“I think we have 97% American children,” she estimated.
From her perspective, she said, Tết is an opportunity every year to gain a broader view of the world that helps them keep an open mind.
“It’s very important for children to learn another culture,” she stated. “When they are young, they are more open to another culture besides their own.”
The Little Flowers children, Sister Rosario revealed, are all very friendly with each other regardless of ethnic background. “Like family,” she said.
Sister Rosario added that she has found people in the United States to be very welcoming to other cultures.
“America is very multicultural,” she reasoned. “I think all Americans – not only the children, but everybody – want to know another culture besides your own.”
This year’s three-day Tết technically ran from Feb. 17-19, but the sisters got a head start. On Friday, Feb. 6, they helped the Little Flowers children set up and run a festival for their parents, grandparents and other guests.
“We also like for the parents, grandparents and other relatives to come and learn more about our culture,” Sister Rosario explained.
Many Vietnamese Tết traditions made for a lively celebration. Decorations included pink and yellow flowers, representing the blossoms of the peach, marumi kumquat and ochna itegerrima trees, which are the traditional flowers used in Vietnam. The children dressed up and wore khan dong (traditional hats) and wished everyone good luck and prosperity in the New Year, as is the custom.
Because the first day of Tết is marked by showing respect to one’s grandparents and ancestors, a pair of grandparents who attended the festival was selected to be honored by the children as “grandparents of the day.”
“The children gave them a gift, and they gave good-luck money to all the children,” Sister Rosario reported.
Good luck money, or li xi, is sealed in a red envelope, and typically the oldest person present has the privilege of handing it out to the youngsters.
“For our children, we put candy money in the envelope,” Sister Rosario said.
In Vietnam, she explained, hierarchy is very important, which is why the oldest guests are honored by the children, and why the children receive li xi from the oldest guest. Most homes have an altar honoring ancestors, although she said Vietnamese Catholics keep things in the proper perspective, honoring God first and foremost.
Tết is always marked by fun games and food stands in a carnival-like atmosphere. So, the sisters helped the children set up a market. Pre-kindergarteners and preschoolers made six booths to sell flowers, candy, cake, fruit, rice and sandwiches.
“They practice selling things, and adults donate money to them,” explained Sister Rosario.
The children were carefully instructed by the sisters to manage their booths independently.
“It’s good before the children grow up to stand behind a booth and handle things in a very good manner,” Sister Rosario asserted. “How to serve, how to say ‘thank you’ and express yourself. All the parents and grandparents say it’s very, very nice.”
She added, “We tell them to look happy, smile at your client, talk to them, and invite them to buy… They really enjoy it.”
Impressively, the children were able to raise about $250 in their market, which will be used to fund the next celebration at Little Flowers Daycare.
The sisters also taught the children two Vietnamese songs to sing for their guests.
Sister Rosario was very pleased with their singing. “Their pronunciation was very clear, even for a 2-and-a-half-year-old, they can sing [those songs] well.”
She said children, guests and sisters alike were all very happy with the Little Flowers Tết celebration. Last weekend, the sisters were able to have a celebration of their own on Saturday and also participate in the larger Tết celebration at Immaculate Heart of Mary with other local Vietnamese Catholics on Sunday. They also welcomed visitors who brought gifts of fruit, rice and flowers, as is customary during Tết.
“This is the time for a family gathering, like your Thanksgiving here,” Sister Rosario said. “It’s a very beautiful occasion.”
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