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Colorado embraces Lunar New Year as celebrations take center stage

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Kids pick up the remains after the firecrackers at the Vietnamese Community Baptist Church in Montbello, which has been celebrating the Lunar New Year for decades.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

DENVER — Colorado celebrated its first Lunar New Year as an official state holiday in February. It became the second state in the country to officially recognize the holiday celebrated by more than 100,000 people in the state when it was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis last year.

Started in China in the 14th century, the holiday is now celebrated throughout Asia and the world. This Lunar New began on February 10th, and is the year of the dragon.

While some communities celebrate the Lunar New Year for only one day, many of the holiday’s festivities and traditions continue for 15 days after the start date.

Communities and families in Colorado celebrated the holiday in different, traditional ways.

A family blessing

The smell of Thịt Kho permeated the living room as guests and family members laid out folding tables and benches, transforming the space into a dining room big enough for the Nguyen family and their friends.

The Nguyen family have been gathering together to celebrate Lunar New Years annually for the last 23 years since they immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. Their celebrations often start with blessings to the elders, red envelope giving and end with a family-style meal.

Over the years, the Nguyen family has started to invite more people to the celebrations as the grandchildren bring over their friends.

“It [Lunar New Years] is a really nice thing to be able to celebrate every year with family and friends,” said Joe Nguyen, 19. “It’s a reminder to celebrate our culture and be grateful for everyone that is here with us.” 

Blessings are given from each household to the elders of the family. Wishes of prosperity, long life and good health are included in almost every blessing as other family members gather to document the moments with their phones.

Nguyen has said that over the recent years that he’s become more appreciative of the traditions and blessings that are given to the older members of his family.

“They are growing old and their time on earth is limited. It makes me happy to be able to wish them well and celebrate new years with them,” he said. 

After the blessings, the elders hand out red envelopes — called lì xì — with money inside to bring forth good luck for the youth in the new year. 

The family then gather around the dining room table to eat dinner and continue the celebration.

Nguyen hopes to continue these traditions that have been taught to him, “it’s important to preserve our culture that has been passed down for a long time. It’s really cool.”  

Firecrackers at a community church

The Vietnamese Community Baptist Church in Montbello has been celebrating Lunar New Year for more than two decades. 

The church celebrates by hosting a fashion show with traditional garments, dances, traditional songs and games.

Congregation and community members gather outside the church to watch the firecrackers.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

David Bui, 23, who has been going to the church with his family since the community church began its official celebrations, has seen the church grow and really embrace the holiday.

“Lunar New Years is another great reason for our Vietnamese congregation to embrace their identity as a cultural enclave in America,” said Bui. 

After a traditional service, the congregation and guests gather outside to set off firecrackers. Traditionally, the firecrackers ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. 

The sounds of the pops rang out through the neighborhood as kids covered their ears and people laughed, cheering on the explosions.

The celebration  is a sought out event in the community with many of the church’s neighbors coming out to watch it as well.

“The firecrackers have just become one of the many beautiful traditions we celebrate here that provide a sense of home to our family,” Bui said. 

A grand opening for Denver

On February 16th, the city of Denver celebrated its inaugural Lunar New Years celebration at the City and County building. 

“With celebrations spanning the globe, its [Lunar New Years] importance is rooted deep in history and remains a most important occasion for generations of families who unite, spend time together, and celebrate,” said Denver City Council member Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez. 

The celebration started with some speeches and addresses to the crowd about the importance of the holiday and its impact on the AAPI community here in Colorado. Mimi Luong, owner of Truong Anh Gifts at the Far East Center, and her mother Phung Luong also spoke to the crowd.

The Far East Center was listed as a historical property in Colorado’s Register this year after being a prominent location for AAPI members since it opened in 1988. 

Last year, Mimi Luong was one in a group of community members who pushed the bill to make Lunar New Years a state holiday. 

“For it to be recognized as a state holiday, it's even more special. You know, I told my mom, I was like, they're finally seeing us, like seeing our holiday.” said Mimi Luong.

Mimi Luong poses with her two kids at the celebration at the city building.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

During the celebration, Phung Loung credited the family’s success to their loyal customers, who also ended up being their friends. 

As community members gathered around the podium in front of the City and County building, the Colorado Asian Cultural Heritage Center started setting up their performance in the background.

The CACHC is a nonprofit organization that teaches the youth how to do battle drums, as well as lion and dragon dancing.

The performance group started off the celebration with drumming. Drumming performances in the Lunar New Year, similarly to firecrackers, are believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. 

The CACHC performs a lion dance.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

After the drumming, the group performed the dragon dance, debuting a new dragon.

Members of city council including Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, participated in the traditions, painting on the dragons and lions so that they could be “awakened” and start to dance.

“Today, I’m very happy to see everybody here. I can see a lot of young kids,” said Phung Luong, who came to the festivities with her daughter. “Young kids, this is the future. This is your culture. We are the culture…don’t forget your culture.” said Phung Luong.

Peter Vo is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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