Colourful Chinese New Year decorations at Ditan Park, Beijing. Photo: Shutterstock Images
For Qi Yi the best part of celebrating the Lunar New Year Feb. 6 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hacienda Heights in the Diocese of Los Angeles was the feeling of being among family.
"This is my first time to celebrate the Chinese New Year in a church," she said. "When I was in China my family got together to celebrate. When I came to the United States three years ago I was alone. My family is all in the Hunan Province. I really miss them. But when I came to this church two months ago, they treat me as family. I have many friends here."
The 28-year-old waitress, who hopes someday to become a teacher, said she cut her hair for the Lunar New Year, because "it means you want to change everything from the top in the hope everything will be good in the new year."
Family gatherings and reunions are a central theme of traditional Lunar New Year observances and are especially important in congregations like St. Thomas, where about 70 percent of the congregation is newly arrived, many from mainland China, said the Rev. Joshua Ng, vicar.
"Some are newly baptized. Some are college students. Others work in restaurants. It is very important for the Asian church to have this kind of celebration," said Ng, 48.
From New York to California, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean congregations of the Episcopal Churchcommemorated the Lunar New Year Feb. 6 in liturgy and music, through family-style meals and observing other traditions.
In New York City the Church of Our Savior started off the new year with a new vestry commissioning during the 11 a.m. worship service, followed by a potluck meal and other traditional customs, according to parish administrator Pamela Tang, in an email.
The Rev. Franco Kwan, rector of True Sunshine Church in San Francisco, said this year the congregation’s celebration just happened to coincide with the regular official visitation of the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, bishop of the Diocese of California.
After baptisms and confirmations, the congregation will sample certain special foods, like "jua choy jo sow, or pork feet with lettuce, which means money’s coming right away," Kwan said.
"We are going to pass out red envelopes with lucky money and have a large potluck" that always includes fish and other foods considered lucky, he said. "We give the lucky money out for good luck, good health for everybody," he added.
"I tell my congregation that we are very lucky because as Chinese Christians we celebrate three new years — the first one is Advent, the church’s new year; next is the western new year (Jan. 1); and then the Lunar New Year."
True Sunshine, one of the oldest Chinese congregations in the Episcopal Church, will observe its 106th anniversary in 2011, the year of the rabbit, Kwan added. About 96 percent of the congregation is of Chinese descent. It includes families from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia; some have been members of the congregation for more than 60 years while others are newly arrived and newly baptized, he said.
"It is very important for us to share a meal together and talk about our blessings," he said. "In China, no matter where you are, during the last few days of the old year you must go back to your home village and celebrate the new year with family. So it is very important, especially for those who have no family or their family is far away, to maintain this observance. And to show our second or third or fourth generations so they don’t forget the new year."
In Falls Church, in the Diocese of Virginia, St. Patrick’s Vietnamese congregation and Holy Cross Korean Episcopal Church welcomed Tet during a joint Feb. 6 service followed by an international potluck meal, said the Rev. Tinh Trang Huynh, St. Patrick’s vicar.
"Tet speaks to the season in Vietnam where spring comes with flowers and it follows the Chinese cycle of 12 years with the names of animals. The only difference is the Vietnamese call this coming year the year of the cat; the Chinese call it the year of the rabbit," said Huynh, 53, in a Feb. 3 telephone interview.
Gathering together recalls aspects of Vietnamese culture, Huynh said. During Tet "people generally believe that the spirit of the fathers and forefathers and foremothers will be coming home, especially at midnight or between the last day of the year and the first day of the new year. It is considered a very sacred time in which the family gathers."
A must-have dish during Tet is banh chung — sticky rice, mung beans and pork wrapped in banana leaves and tied with thin strips of bamboo shoots, he said. "They put those in a big pot, a really big pot, and boil it the whole night. The family usually sits around the pot and keeps the fire going."
It is also customary for people in villages and churches to visit each other and exchange wishes or blessings. "They have to be very careful about the words they say on the first day of the new year, because they believe that words spoken on the first day will affect their lives for the whole year," he added.
Another custom is "the giving of red envelopes with lucky money to the children. The envelopes are imprinted with a Chinese word that means blessings," he added. "Ideally, you don’t put used currency in the envelopes, you get brand new money, but first the child must say wishes to the older people, like their parents or grandparents or uncle or aunt, something like, ‘I wish you all the happiness in the new year.’"
He recalled using the money as a child to purchase firecrackers. "We have to be careful with them, but we start lighting them around midnight, to le the old year go and to welcome the new year, or to let old things go and to welcome new things."
The envelopes are red because "red for Chinese and Vietnamese, for people in Asia, means good luck. It means energy; it means love. Red is a very positive color." St. Patrick’s includes about 40 Vietnamese families and 60 American and other English-speaking people, including families from Africa, he said.
In Hacienda Heights, California, everyone who attended St. Thomas’ celebration received a lucky red envelope-filled with candy and a Scripture verse-and signifying being fortunate enough to give back to God, vicar Joshua Ng said.
A good-luck meal included "very long noodles to signify long life in order to serve God forever, and always leftovers, extras, so we bring more to church," he said.
Although initially concerned that the 6 p.m. celebration time might tempt parishioners to choose a Super Bowl party instead of church, Ng was happy with the turnout of about 50 people, mostly college and high school-aged, who filled the parish hall.
The gathering began with prayer and singing "Gongxi Gongxi" to usher in the new year, and ended with a rousing chorus anticipating Ng’s Feb. 7 birthday. "I was born in the year of the rabbit," Ng joked. "It means for me, and for this year, being active, alert and always changing."
— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.