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Lunar New Year & Moments of Goodness

Published: Jan 31, 2024

Passing my Childhood onto the Next Generation
By Tony Ly (Sr. Recruiter, Talent Acquisition)

When I think back to my childhood, some of my strongest core memories involve holiday traditions. As a Vietnamese-American, I loved all of the American holidays for different reasons.

Thanksgiving was my favorite. I see a younger me, surrounded by family. My cousins chase each other from room to room, weaving past aunts and uncles. My oldest sister, Ngan, pulls a perfectly roasted, golden turkey from the oven as my mother diligently sets the table. The spread of sides that stretch from one end of a long dining room table to the other…Food and family – what more could you ask for?

For those same reasons, another holiday – one from my Vietnamese heritage – holds a special place in my heart: Lunar New Year.

lunar new year celebration

As the name suggests, the Lunar New Year celebrates the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar. As opposed to the solar calendar or, more specifically, the Gregorian calendar, which is used in most parts of the world, the lunar calendar is based on “synodic months” or “lunar months” which last approximately 29 ½ days. This lunar month is the period between new moons (when the moon is directly between Earth and the Sun).

For China, Vietnam, South Korea, and many other Asian cultures, the Lunar New Year is celebrated as the official beginning of spring. In fact, the Chinese also refer to the Lunar New Year as the Spring Festival.

While there are some differences – different foods, different names for certain activities – my Vietnamese family’s Lunar New Year traditions are quite similar to those of the Chinese.

Lunar New Year Food Traditions

Like Thanksgiving, the spread of food is always a sight to behold: braised pork and eggs (thit kho tau), bittermelon stuffed with ground pork and mung bean noodles (canh khổ qua), sticky sweet rice and mung bean cakes wrapped in banana leaves (bánh tét), and, perhaps my personal favorite, cuts of roasted pork belly with the crispiest, crunchiest skin you can possibly imagine (thit heo quay).

There’s also the plate of what I affectionately refer to as the weird stuff: thinly sliced cold cuts including a steamed pork sausage called cha lua, picked leeks and dried shrimp…and the infamous thousand-year egg.

These eggs, also known as century eggs, aren’t actually a thousand years old, of course. They’re duck eggs that are preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, and salt for several weeks up to several months. As a result of this process, the yolk turns into an ashen greenish-grey while the egg white takes on a translucent dark amber color.

As a young child, my cousins and I would dare each other to try one. We treated it like a rite of passage into adulthood. Now, as an actual adult and having eaten many of these eggs, I don’t think they taste bad at all, but they still probably wouldn’t be my first choice to fill up my plate.

In defense of the weird stuff, most of these foods are meant to be consumed alongside an ice-cold glass of beer which naturally makes all of it go down much smoother.

quote: these were the sights and sounds and tastes of my childhood

Lunar New Year Activities

Once we stuffed ourselves with food, it was time for the main event, or at least it seemed that way when we were kids. It was a gambling game called bầu cua. A paper playing mat was laid out onto the floor which portrayed six, vibrant images: a fish, a prawn, a crab, a rooster, a stag, and a gourd.

My Uncle Jimmy, dressed in a traditional silk Tangzhuang garb, would play the role of the dealer (he would also enthusiastically play the role of Santa Claus every year for Christmas, if that tells you anything about his personality). In his hands was a bowl, placed upside down on a plate which formed a dome shape. Within the ‘dome’ were three dice with six painted sides which corresponded to the pictures on the playing mat.

The idea is – you wager your bets by placing money onto the playing mat, however you thought the dice landed. Most of us kids would usually just bet quarters, but some of my ‘high rolling’ older cousins liked to throw down those dollar bills. The three dice would act as a multiplier for your winnings. So, if you placed one quarter on a prawn, and the dice showed one prawn, you’d receive a payout of a quarter (in addition to the one you bet). If the dice showed three prawns, that was a jackpot! You’d receive a payout of three quarters. If the dice didn’t show any of your bets – well, sorry! Your money goes to the dealer.

Uncle Jimmy would shake the bowl with a spirited gusto before letting the dice land and sit inside, unrevealed. We’d have maybe 10 seconds or so to place our bets, led only by our intuition.

“Khui! Khui! Khui!” we would chant with a growing fervor (“Khui” was Vietnamese for “open”). A hush would take over the room as Uncle Jimmy would theatrically pull off the bowl to reveal the dice inside, and then an eruption! If you closed your eyes and just listened, you could tell who won and who loss and by how much.

These were the sights and sounds and tastes of my childhood. And each Lunar New Year, I get to joyfully relive it. The only difference is, these days, I’m usually the dealer while it’s my little cousins, nieces, and nephews who gather around and pensively lay down their quarters.

Visit our Lunar New Year page for more ways to celebrate including make-at-home crafts and recipes!