Tet in Texas: Dancing with the Lion (header)

Tet in Texas – Celebrating the Lunar New Year

Imagine living under a tin roof, with no insulation, during a hailstorm. With firecrackers. That’s pretty much what Lunar New Year sounds like. Oh, plus a lion. But don’t worry, that’s good luck.

We have posted before about attending local events as one way of experiencing other cultures. Much like the United States, our little TravelLatte crew is a cultural melting pot which, thankfully, includes the wonderfully colorful and often fiery Vietnamese. (By the way, we mean that both figuratively and literally!) So, with expert guidance, we set out every year to explore and celebrate the biggest holiday in every Asian culture, popularly known as Chinese New Year.

Lion Dance Drummers at Tet

The drummers (and gong bongers and cymbal bashers) are just part of the noise and celebration during Tet. See more photos from Tet in Texas here. (Photo: TravelLatte.net)

It’s not just Chinese New Year!

I say “popularly known as” because it goes by several names: Spring Festival, Lunar New Year or, in Vietnam’s case, Tết Nguyên Đán, which translates beautifully to Feast of the First Morning of the First Day. It is the most auspicious day on the calendar, and it is celebrated with all of the fanfare and festivity that the Western world associates with New Year, Christmas, and even Thanksgiving, all rolled into one. There are family dinners, parties, gifts, thanks and offerings, ceremonies, and lots of noise and fireworks.

In a Vietnamese family, preparations begin at least a week before the actual holiday. There are banners to hang, gifts to buy, and cooking to do! Plus, the home must be spotless. (In part, because you can’t sweep during the two week festival; you might sweep away good luck!) Friends and family will be visiting for New Year’s Eve, Red Packets filled with Lucky Money are handed around, and we eat like it’s the end of the world. (Seriously, there is usually enough food to feed an army for the rest of the month!)

The Roots of Chinese New Year

The traditional Chinese New Year has its roots in the Shang Dynasty, from the 17th to 11th Century BC. Villagers would start the new year by warding off evil beasts, Nian, who lived under seas or in mountains. They avoided people most of the year but, around the new year, a Nian might come out of hiding and attack a village, eating children and livestock. Nian had two weaknesses though: they did not like loud noise, and they were frightened by the color red. So, naturally, villagers would dress in red and make as much noise as possible, banging pots, pans and plates, and setting off firecrackers. That colorful, noisy tradition has survived into our 21st century in the form of the Lion Dance. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tet in Texas: Chua Huong Dao Temple via @TravelLatte.net

Chua Huong Dao Temple in Fort Worth, Texas, is a central part of life in the area’s Vietnamese community.

Tet in Texas: Prayers at Chua Huong Dao Temple via @TravelLatte.net

Offering prayers to your ancestors is an important element of Lunar New Year observation.

The festival itself has grown from a noisy band of villagers chasing off a menacing monster into a week (or two) long celebration to welcome a new year. Thankfully, Chinese New Year hasn’t been fully commercialized in the U.S. the way Oktoberfest and Cinco de Mayo have, and it’s possible to find authentic celebrations anywhere Asian families gather. Around our home base in north Texas, we visit the beautiful Chua Huong Dao temple in Fort Worth before going to several shopping centers that serve as cultural hubs for goods and entertainment. During Tet, they explode in a joyous jumble of color and cacophony that can leave the uninitiated wondering what just happened.

Shopping centers – the modern equivalent of festival grounds – are draped in red and yellow, the colors of happiness, luck, wealth, love and celebration. Events begin early with a blessing from local monks, and many opportunities to spend your Red Packet money on delicious, home-made foods and treats, handcrafted decorations, or a well-received donation to the Monks in exchange for blessings. As you would expect, there are singers and musicians, and daring demonstrations from local martial arts students.

Tet in Texas: Chinese New Year at Asia Times Square - Enter the Lion via @TravelLatte.net

The Lion Dance begins as the dancers in Lion (or Unicorn) costumes enter the crowd.

The Lion Dance

The highlight is the Mua Lan, or Lion Dancing. Adapted from the Chinese Lion Dance, the Vietnamese version is often called a Unicorn Dance. The Vietnamese Lan appears as an animal resembling a dragon with a lion’s mane and a unicorn horn. It is the symbol of strength and comes, accompanied by drums, gongs, and the Earth spirit Ong Dia as his guide, to scare away evil spirits. (On a practical note, one thing I’ve learned after attending several celebrations is to bring ear plugs. Remember, all this noise has to be loud enough to scare away evil spirits, so it gets very noisy.)

Tet in Texas: Chinese New Year at Asia Times Square - Blessings from the Lion via @TravelLatte.net

The Lion Dance culminates with blessings for the New Year delivered from the Lions.

It is good luck to feed the unicorns (who eat money!) as they parade through the crowd before visiting their benefactors to bestow blessings for the new year. For the grand finale, the dancers gather before the entrance to the sponsor’s business, where lettuce or cabbage is hung to tempt the unicorn. In an amazing display of acrobatics, the dancers climb and stretch to take the bait, and leave blessings in return, while strings of firecrackers ward off any evil spirits.

Tet in Texas: Chinese New Year at Asia Time Square_Feeding the Lion via @TravelLatte.net

It’s good luck (and good manners) to feed lion! Luckily, they don’t bite.

Tet in Texas: Chinese New Year at Asia Times Square - Ông Địa and the Unicorns

Guided by the Earth spirit, Ong Dia, the Lion Dancers parade through the New Year celebrations.

After the Mua Lan, we generally go eat (more) and linger in the shops and stalls just in case there’s a New Year decoration we overlooked, like the beautiful golden Year of the Goat statuette I nearly missed! Filled with good spirits, good blessings, and amazing food, we leave every New Year celebration looking forward to the year ahead…and to the next celebration!

Tet in Texas: A statuette to commemorate the Year of the Goat

I found this handsome fellow to commemorate 2015, the Year of the Goat!

See more from Tet in Texas in our Lion Dance Gallery!

Lunar New Year generally falls between January 20 and February 20 on the Gregorian calendar, and is usually well advertised in stores, churches and temples in areas with large Asian populations. A few things to remember: Fighting, breaking things, taking medicine, and crying are all considered bad luck, so try your best to avoid doing any of the above. Red and yellow are the colors of the day. Black is a bad thing, so adjust your wardrobe accordingly. If you’d like to come with gifts, Red Packets (envelopes) filled with “lucky” money is traditional, as are liquor, tea, flowers, and fruit (except for pears). Although you will see them everywhere, some believe Chrysanthemums are unwelcome as they are frequently associated with funerals.

LIttle girl at the Cherry Tree at Asia Time Square via @TravelLatte

A little girl quietly admires the Cherry Tree and temple display during Tet celebrations at Asia Times Square.

New! Check out the Lunar New Year opening celebrations at Asia Times Square in DFW! (Video courtesy of Asia Times Square.)

We’d love to hear about your experiences at Chinese New Year and other celebrations and cultural events. Just leave us a comment below! And don’t forget you can Pin this post if you want to save it for later, or share it with friends. Thanks!

Tet in Texas: Dancing with the Lion Pin

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60 comments on “Tet in Texas – Celebrating the Lunar New Year

  1. Wow! I did NOT expect Texas to have such an amazing celebration for the Lunar New Year! Looks like so much fun! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again this week!

  2. I’d heard that Texas has quite a large Vietnamese community and it’s great to see the celebrations for Tet from your local area. I’ve only ever celebrated the lunar new year once with chinese/vietnamese friends of mine but Melbourne has a large chinese community and the celebrations in China Town are great. Glad to hear it hasn’t been commercialised yet and that it’s still very much a community oriented celebration.

    • Hi David – we have heard that Melbourne has a great China Town to visit! Hopefully, we’ll get there before too long, maybe even for the Lunar New Year! Thanks again for reading, and Happy New Year!

  3. I always love the Vietnamese new year and have visited Vietnam a few times. I can imagine how much fun it would have been. There are also large Vietnamese communities in Australia that I image that would celebrate in the same way as the US.

    • Hi Barry – There are a few places where we’d love to celebrate Lunar New Year. Australia has a couple of cities that we’ve heard have great celebrations and vibrant Asian communities. We are hoping to be in Vietnam for Lunar New Year next year. Meanwhile, Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!

  4. Wonderful article with great history about Lunar New Year plus how it applies to the Vietnamese. Some history I learned was the reason behind the Lion Dance which I have previously seen and enjoy and not sweeping! Wonderful photos and thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Thanks, Stephanie! I love the story behind the Lion Dance. It really makes it that much more enjoyable! I do like the “no chores” rule, too. 🙂 Happy New Year!

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a Vietnamese celebration of Lunar New Year, although I do see many similarities to Chinese traditions. This time of year, I miss living in Malaysia with night after night of fireworks and loud drumming throughout the day. Earplugs are a very good idea. Austin has a tiny celebration, but I’ve never attended. Thanks for linking up with #WkendTravelInspiration.

    • Hi Michelle! It seems that most of the Asian cultures celebrate Lunar New Year in very similar fashion: LOUDLY!! 😉 And with lots of food. I think those things are key. We would love to be in Malaysia for New Year at least one time. That must be fantastic! Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

    • Right? I think that’s partly what inspired us – how often do you read about Lunar New Year in the middle of Texas??? Thanks for reading, Shona, and Happy New Year!

  6. Great post Robert! Enjoyed reading about your Tet celebrations, thanks for sharing how you celebrated looked like a lot of fun! We’ve been to a couple Chinese New Year celebrations in Britain, always love the lions!

    • Hi Garth! Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m with you – love the lions! This year especially, though, what I really enjoyed was the mass of happy people! With all of the turbulence around the world of late, it was a great distraction. Happy New Year to you and Phil!

    • Hi Sarah! Epic is a great word for it. And you’re always welcome to come celebrate with us! Trust me, there’s enough food and fun to share. 🙂 Happy New Year!

  7. Such a great way to celebrate and bring different cultures together – I had an absolutely brilliant time in Bangkok last year celebrating Chinese New Year. Great to see the colourful celebrations in Texas too!

    • Hey Lexx – I can only imagine Lunar Near Year in Bangkok! That must have been something. Bangkok is pretty crazy in the first place! 😉 Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.

  8. I am not so familiar with Chinese NY so this post showed me some interesting things about this amazing tradition that I still have much to learn about. I love how colorful everything is, especially the masks. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Oana – I’m glad we could share some of the history and fun of Lunar New Year! The best way to learn more is to find a celebration and join in! That’s also a good way to have a lot fun. 🙂 Happy New Year!

  9. Loved reading this post. Learned a lot about the Chinese New Year I was not aware of. Such bright and beautiful colors. I’m not aware of any Chinese festivals where I am at but plenty of Greek, Polish and Irish ones that are always fun.

    • We are huge fans of Greek cuisine, so anytime there’s a Greek festival around, you can bet we’re there! Near our home base is a large Romanian Orthodox church that has a great festival every year – that’s always fun. What I love is that it’s like a mini-dose of traveling without going too far from home. Okay, that and there’s usually a lot of home country cooking to sample! 🙂 Thanks for reading, Lisa, and Happy New Year!

  10. Really informative post regarding Chinese New Year. We have seen the Lion dance a few times and it is wonderful to see. Great post! #feetdotravel

    • Hi guys! That temple, while very humble, has grown into a beautiful place. I’m with you on the Lion Dance. It’s one of my favorite parts of the celebrations (right after the food!) and I never get tired of watching them. In fact, they have competitions! It’s fascinating to see the teamwork involved in bringing the lions to life, incorporating gymnastics, martial arts, and pantomime. Happy New Year to you both!

  11. Such an interesting post, I didn’t not know that Chinese New Year had different names so this was a good lesson for me and I loved the history you shared. I especially love the tradition of it being good luck to feed the unicorns! Thanks for sharing things that are bad luck as well and what should be avoided, this is very important! What a great post, thank so much for sharing, pinned for future reference #feetdotravel

    • Hi Angie – Thanks to Ann’s heritage, I’ve learned a lot about the Lunar New Year. Feeding the lions is fun…it’s mostly the children who do it, but I don’t care how old you are – coming face to face with those charming beasts makes everyone feel like a kid! Except for the ones that breath fire…I’d keep my distance from those guys. 😉 Happy New Year to you and Sy!

    • Hi Elaine – I would encourage you to attend one wherever you are traveling! They are lots fun and always have great food. I also think it’s interesting how CNY celebrations blend the local culture with traditions of the Asian cultures. My new favorite example, this year in Dallas, I spotted someone in a traditional Tang suit…with cowboy boots and hat. Happy New Year, y’all!

  12. As someone who has never been in China, I am amazed to see what a lively culture this country has. Amazing traditions also. #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • Hi Anda – There are so many aspects of Asian cultures that I admire, and many of the traditions and celebrations are beautiful! Lively is a good word for it! Happy New Year!

    • Happy New Year, Courtney! Glad you enjoyed it. It certainly is a noisy celebration, but knowing the origin makes it perfect sense. Another one I didn’t understand is feeding the lion cabbage. What kind of lion eats cabbage? Once the symbolism was explained – green cabbage represents money and prosperity – it made sense…although I still don’t like cabbage. 😉 Thanks for reading!

  13. You know I actually haven’t really ever celebrated the Lunar New Year. I was thinking it would be nice to be in Asia to experience it, but it is nice to know that you can experience it without traveling. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • What??? New York has one of the bigger (more likely many) Lunar New Year celebrations. You should go! We were just discussing that very thing with some friends, oddly enough. One thing for sure, you can have a Happy New Year wherever you are! 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

    • Hi again, guys! Things don’t get much more colorful than Chinese New Year, eh? We would love to catch a celebration in Melbourne, and some of the other cities that now have large Asian populations, like San Francisco, Toronto, and New York. I’m sure many of the traditions would be the same, but I love how local cultures get weaved into the celebrations. Thanks again for stopping by, and Happy New Year!

  14. I wouldn’t have expected that there would be such a vibrant Chinese New Year celebration in Texas. That’s so cool! We’ve been to the celebration in New York City – the year of the tiger, but no where else. Great photos.

    • Thanks for your comment and kind words! One thing’s for sure: Almost any celebration of Chinese New Year will be vibrant with so many bright colors! There are substantial Asian communities in the DFW and Houston areas, especially of Vietnamese settled in the 1970s. As immigrants and first generation Americans, their cultural roots are still very strong, as seen every Lunar New Year.

    • Hi Lyndall – It’s certainly a fun celebration, and it’s so neat seeing the little ones ‘feeding’ the unicorn/lion. They are very excited about it, and the dancers usually interact with the kids, making it a special moment for everyone. Very fun. Plus, it’s good luck! Thanks again for stopping by!

  15. we have learned to stay away from our 3 main Asian neighborhoods during Lunar New Year because the crowds are unbelievable. Luckily they decided a few years ago that letting off mats of fireworks in such densely populated areas is a bad idea and have curtailed that so it’s a little safer. Your celebrations look less crowded and very fun!

    • Hi Eileen – Our bigger festivals get pretty crowded but, because there are many smaller ones, and last for days, I think each one is a little less crowded and a lot more manageable. What’s funny is that we’ll run into the same people at two or three events around town. I could do with less firecrackers though. I’m pretty sure that’s my “grumpy old man” coming through: “Hey you kids with the firecrackers…” 😉

    • Thanks Corinne! It’s true, especially if you live in a large city – there are tons of events where locals celebrate their heritage. My favorites are the Greek festivals (because Greek food!!) but I seek out and attend as many different ones as I can. It’s a lesson from the world without leaving home! We’ve learned more about places we want to go, and about places we never knew we wanted to go! Thanks for reading!

  16. Here in Los Angeles the Chinese New Year is a big event. There are parades, activities and special menus all over the city (think are bigger in Chinatown and in the San Gabriel Valley). We also have the largest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. I have never checked out their festivities (probably because it is swallowed by the Chinese celebration). I should. Thanks for the idea.

    • It’s true – LA and San Francisco are like the mecca of Chinese New Year parties in America! The first one I ever attended was in Little Saigon in Garden Grove. I was about 10, and it hooked me for life! Thanks for visiting the blog – and when you do go, I hope you’ll share it with all of us on your blog!

    • Thanks Rhonda! The colors actually have significance – there are several different unicorns/lions, and each one has a name and color. I can never keep them straight, but I love watching them! 😉

  17. I think it’s wonderful you’re sharing traditions for Chinese New Years. My grandparents came from China to the United States after World War II, but they are still very traditional and follow lots of Chinese New Year celebrations. We are always told to clean our house and eat an orange for good luck. I also still get “Lacie-Voots” (not sure on the spelling of that one), the lucky money envelopes every holiday and birthday. I remember firecrackers and still wear red on this holiday! Excited to see others enjoying the festivities!

    • Hi Brooke – There are so many great traditions around Chinese New Year! We an already see some traditions changing or falling away, but we do try to carry and pass on as many as we can! Of course everyone likes the Lucky Money…but it’s hard getting the teens to clean the house! 😉 Thanks for sharing some of your traditions, too! And Happy New Year (again)!

  18. That’s a beautiful temple. There are lots of fun aspects to CNY. I particularly like the Lion Dances. You can hire troupes to come to your home where I live, but I just go to the mall. Last year I caught three or four days worth of dances by going to the mall every day.

    • Hi Karen – Thanks, we love that temple. I’m a fan of the Lion Dance, too. It’s fascinating, but I never thought about having them come to my house. That’s genius! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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