I was thirteen years old before I knew what my Chinese Zodiac sign was (The Year of the Rat), and that it was based on the Southeast Asian tradition of the Lunar New Year. I found the existence of a whole other system for measuring time to be fascinating and mysterious. Worcester’s connection to the Southeast Asian community is vast; in fact we have the 3rd largest Vietnamese population in Massachusetts, and rank 3rd by percentage of 3%. Even without the statistics, the sheer abundance of Vietnamese restaurants from Mint Worcester, to Pho Dakao, to Anh Thu II, naming only a handful, demonstrates how integral Vietnamese culture is to Worcester’s cultural milieu. And every February the community gathers to celebrate one of the two most important traditional holidays for Vietnamese culture.
For some background information on the Lunar New Year I connected with Tuyet Tran from the Southeast Asian Coalition here in Worcester. Tran was happy to provide some historical background. “The Lunar New Year is celebrated in China, Vietnam, and follows the lunar calendar. The lunar calendar measures the year in increments of moon cycles, which are about 28 days each therefore it’s slightly different from the regular western calendar. Naturally it changes the exact Gregorian calendar date from year to year. For this year it’s February 10th, and is the Year of the Dragon It’s really a celebration of the beginning of Spring.”
The Lunar New Year celebrates themes of renewal, reinvigoration, and revival. In short it celebrates all things springtime. Tran explains: “According to the cycle of the moon. It’s spring and therefore time for family and gathering and happiness. My favorite part of our tradition in Vietnamese culture is the opportunity to clean the slate and start fresh with everyone. In our tradition, you let go of grudges from the previous year. This time of year, people reach out to one another make amends or smooth things almost no matter what. Any particular disagreement you might have had, like if you haven’t talked to someone because you had a falling out for some reason, you call and you fix things before the New Year. If you don’t, it’s considered a bad omen.”
In addition to behaviors associated with the New Year, there are also customs related to ringing in the spring and with it the new era. “We always set off firecrackers to chase away evil spirits. This is a big part of what we believe. You also want to start the new year with ‘new money’ so family members give each other these little red envelopes that contain one dollar bills to start the year with good fortune. The kids and the grandkids and everybody lines up and they wish the oldest in the family a year of health and good fortune.”
Another huge part of the celebration is the variety of food, traditional to the Lunar New Year. “There are many foods associated with the big event.” Tran explains: “There are basically two shapes that we make as part of the food offering, circle to represent the moon, and square to represent the earth. We use glutinous rice and mung beans and the cakes can be made sweet or savory. If we are making them savory there are versions that put meat like pork inside. That’s my favorite.” Although the Southeast Asian Coalition is having their big New Year’s event this year at the end of January, Tran is able to direct me to other local groups making celebrating this month.”
Mint Worcester is always looking for ways to celebrate and bring awareness to one of the two biggest Vietnamese holidays. Owner Trang Le says: “I always look for ways to educate people and spread awareness about our culture and traditions. Last year we brought dumplings at UMASS and everyone loved them so much. This year we are planning on bringing the dumplings to UMASS again. We are set to be there on February 9th, and anyone eating at the cafeteria at Memorial or University Park will be able to enjoy Mint Worcester dumplings.” It doesn’t stop there, however, because Le values the cultural education piece, she’s also offering a ‘dumpling’ making workshop. “We actually did one dumpling workshop last year and we sold out. This year we are going to offer two sessions, one of which will take place in February. On February 14th, we will invite people to come into Mint and make their own dumplings. The dumplings are shaped like silver and gold ingots and are said to represent fortune and prosperity in the coming year. The more dumplings you eat the more prosperous you will be in the New Year. It’s also a great Valentine’s activity.”
Across town in a rather unexpected pocket, Neelu Mohaghegh prepares her own homage to Southeast Asian traditions. “My own personal background is Persian. My dad moved here from Iran in the 70s and basically built his real estate business from scratch. I grew up doing martial arts and feeling really connected to Southeast Asian culture. Additionally, we have our own Persian New Year that happens in March, so I’m really sympathetic to non-mainstream New Year traditions. So we are hosting our own Lunar New Year Extravaganza here at Fuel in Grove Street.”
The Grove Street Fuel location opened its doors on February 10th of 2022 so celebrating its inception comes hand in hand with the Lunar New Year. “This year our 2nd birthday party will celebrate the Lunar New Year. We love being able to share something that means a lot to a lot of people. We’ve had people travel from as far as Rhode Island to attend last year. This year we will have red envelopes that contain traditional New Year’s wishes. Some of our new flavors for this year will be matcha, ube and black sugar. The latter is often traditionally used in Boba so it will be familiar. For entertainment, we are going to have “the Lion Dance” by the Eternals. Our event hours are 10am-3p and the Eternals will be doing their dance around 2pm as a kind of finale. We are inviting tons of local Asian owned businesses to partner with us and participate as vendors. Mochi Doh will be joining us as well, and we are in talks with Mint Worcester for them to participate. We are also partnering with the Worcester Center for the Crafts to paint stationary with ‘Year of the Dragon’ symbolism. It’s going to be great!”
But the celebration doesn’t have to end there. RICEMA (Refugees & Immigrants Cultural Empowerment Massachusetts) is a performance arts and education center, focusing on preserving the art and culture of refugees and immigrants through education and performing arts, connecting a rich cultural identity to the community and contributing to the American experience*. In line with their mission, RICEMA is hosting their own Lunar New Year event on February 17th. The festival will take place at the Boys & Girls Club (65 Boys & Girls Club Way) and will feature a Lion Dance, as well as several vendors and performances, including Mint Worcester, Nori, and Euphoria. I spoke with Boa Newgate to get the scoop.
“The Lunar New Year is known as Tét, and it’s the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Tét celebrates the arrival of spring based on the Vietnamese calendar. During this time families reunite and honor their ancestors while praying for luck, health, and prosperity in the New Year. Our celebration will have many games, activities and performances throughout the day. We will also have Worcester’s first Ao Dai competition. If you have the best Ao Dai outfit/dress at the festival, you will win a cash prize!”
Historically reserved for lovers or the lovelorn, the color red takes on a whole new meaning this February. In Southeast Asian tradition, red is favorable for making your New Year dreams and ambitions come true. Worcester in February invites us all to think outside of the scope of western traditions and focus on what makes the shortest or coldest month around here exude warmth and shine. Recapture the magic of childhood glee and come out in support of our diverse tapestry of Southeast Asian culture by attending a Lion Dance, sampling some matcha flavored beverages, or even reaching out to old friends to make amends. It’s the Lunar Year’s end, and also its beginning. Let it be yours too.