8 ways to celebrate Tet with your Vietnamese bilingual children
Every year around Lunar New Year, I see dozens of parents asking the same questions on the Asian parenting forums: How do you celebrate Lunar New Year for your kids at home and at school? We live on a small island where there is a tiny and dispersed Asian community, so this question is very salient to us as well.
In this blog, I outline ten simple Lunar New Year activities for kids that are not too taxing to your time and budget, but that will help to hype up the festive spirit and make Tết a memorable holiday, even when you live in a community where Lunar NewYear is not widely recognized or celebrated.
1-Begin celebrating Lunar New Year by making a plan
Similar to Christmas, the Lunar New Year celebration does not begin with the New Year’s Day itself. All the preparations beforehand are part of the tradition, and most of the fun! Start planning the holiday about 1-2 weeks in advance by sitting down with your children to brainstorm a few celebration ideas (you can pick from the list below!), and assign a date for them so the kids can look forward to them.
If you want to share the Lunar New Year traditions with your children's school community, make sure you engage the faculty or the school’s DEI (Diversity, Equality & Inclusion) committee to support you. This discussion should happen 2-4 weeks in advance to help the school plan their curriculum, make announcements, and prepare the necessary logistics to make the activities happen. The school may need a lot of guidance from you on ideas to celebrate in a culturally appropriate way, so the earlier you brainstorm the activities - the better!
2-Make Lunar New Year themed crafts
Vietnamese Lunar New Year crafts that are easy and fun for little kids: making Tết-themed drawings, making/coloring Tết calligraphy, DIY red envelopes, making cherry blossom paintings with finger prints and recycled soda bottle.
Making Lunar New Year themed crafts is an easy way for little children to celebrate Lunar New Year through play. A few simple craft ideas that are age appropriate for kids include: red envelop origami and/or coloring, making red lanterns, or writing modern calligraphy on red papers. (the Stories of Vietnam team has some fantastic craft & calligraphy templates that you can print out for home or classroom use!)
For even simpler craft ideas, you can also make origami or drawings with the zodiac animal themes (e.g. this year 2023 is the year of the Cat) while telling them stories of the zodiac animals. All these crafts are easy to set up and can be done within the nursery/preschool classroom too.
3- Reading children’s books about the Vietnamese Lunar New Year
Reading Lunar New Year children's books is a great way to get kids to learn about Tết. Fortunately, recently there are quite a few Vietnamese children’s book authors who have written about Tết, with lovely, joyful illustrations and diverse contents.
Some of our favorites include: Colors of Tet, Tết Together, Đúng là Tết, Xin Chào Tết Ơi, Đón Tết Về Nhà, A Tết Là Đây, and our very own I love Vietnam felt activity book which include two gorgeous handmade activity pages about Tết.
Little Bean's Toy Chest's special creation - the I love Vietnam felt activity book - includes two gorgeous handmade activity pages about Tết.
For older kids, I love the Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories collection by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, which include a few folk stories about Tet that are popular to all Vietnamese natives (Legend of Banh Chung and Banh Day, The Legend of the Mai Flower, and Why One Shouldn’t Sweep the House During Tet). As my eight year old is not fluent in Vietnamese, I appreciate that the book is written in clear, beautiful English, with age-appropriate content and vocabulary, so that she can fully understand the depth and nuances of these stories without having to struggle with the language barrier.
The Vietnamese Children's Favorite Stories tell many Tết-themed folklores in English - a great help for the bilingual children with limited Vietnamese language skills.
These English and bilingual books are also great for sharing with non-Vietnamese friends at school! Make a plan to bring LNY themed books to your children’s class or make suggestions for the school to order them for the school’s library, and book a date to come to school and read the books or share your Tết stories if you can (see below for a suggested list of Lunar New Year books for children).
4- If you can't see the dragon dance, plan a trip to the nearest Asian grocer
You may often see the hypes about the Chinatown's Lunar New Year festivals with major, organized fanfares such as dragon dance, food fests and fireworks - the closest approximates of a major Lunar New Year public celebration you can get in the US. However, not all families can access to these events as they are usually located downtown or where there's already a big Asian community.
Even if you live in a remote town (like we do) and can’t take your kids to these events, don’t underestimate the simple act of taking your children to an Asian markets or grocery store near you before Lunar New Year. Chances are you will find a lot of spring flowers, red envelops, Tết foods like dried fruits (mứt Tết), rice cakes (bánh chưng, bánh tét), and other Tết paraphernalia.
The local Asian grocery store is an unexpected place for Asian children to soak up Lunar New Year culture.
Coming to these markets, seeing the fellow Asian families doing Lunar New Year shopping, and soaking in the hurried hustle bustle of the pre-Tết atmosphere, in itself is a cultural experience that will become a part of your child’s Lunar New Year memory.
5- Make Lunar New Year greeting cards for friends and family
Sending greeting cards during Lunar New Year isn’t a long-held tradition in the same way that Chrismas has been. It’s rather a recently adopted practice when modern Asian families cannot reunite easily as before to celebrate Tết.
For the bilingual Vietnamese children living away from grandparents and relatives, this would be a lovely, thoughtful gesture to let them know you are thinking about them during this holiday, even though you can’t be with them in person.
Making a greeting card with the little ones can be simple: toddlers can use LNY themed stickers or make cherry blossom prints with the bottom of a Coca Cola bottle (see #2 above). Older children with better dexterity can cut paper flowers and write short phrases of Tet greetings! (Here are 20 Tết wishes for families and friends from our friends at Hello to Chào for a handy guide).
6- Play Lunar New Year games
Many Lunar New Year games can be set up during this holiday for some family fun. Toddlers can enjoy hours of imaginative play from the Vietnam busy book, with handmade felt bánh chưng, bánh tét, hoa đào, hoa mai, and áo dài dress-up games.
Little children can learn so much about Vietnam's culture, including Tết traditions, with our Vietnam handmade book!
Some blasts from the pasts like cá ngựa (seahorse chess), bầu cua tôm cá (the animal dice game), and tú lơ khơ (western card game), are easy family games that everyone can play together during Tết. The nostalgic games have been played during Tet days in family gatherings for decades, and are simple enough for any preschooler who can count.
Fun fact: In the past, kids and teenagers used their lucky money to make bets during these games (which is why playing board games or card games are popular during Tet!) You can also simulate the stake of the games by offering pretend money notes, chocolate coins or other kinds of pawns!
7- Make zodiac animal themed foods
Vietnamese Tet foods are delicious but also painfully time-consuming to make! For the busy Vietnamese parents who don’t have the energy to make the traditional dishes like bánh chưng, spring rolls, or candied fruits, I have an idea: You can engage the littles in making simpler Tet-themed treats: zodiac animal shaped red sticky rice (xôi gấc) or zodiac animal shaped cookies.
These are also fun activities to do at school too. As this is the year of the Cat, we are making cat-shaped red sticky rice using the mooncake cat-shaped molds with my daughter’s preschool class! It's an experiment and I will report back how it goes after the day!
Red sticky rice (xôi gấc) is a special dish made on special Lunar celebrations like Tet and the Full Moon Day, to offer the ancestors on the alter before sharing during Tet meals. For this Tet we are trying to incorporate this into a fun activity for little kids by using the mooncake molds with Tet references like zodiac animals and cherry blossoms. Let's see if this works out!
8- Decorate the house in red/Lunar New Year theme
Engage your little ones in cleaning up and decorating the house for Tết is a great way to teach them about Lunar New Year traditions. You can tell them the story of why cleaning up the house before the New Year’s Day and avoiding sweeping the house during the first few days of Tet, is ultra-important to Vietnamese culture (see #3 above for book source).
Some common decoration activities include adorning the house with spring flowers and plants, hanging up some red calligraphy phrases with well wishes for the New Year (Happiness, Prosperity, Luck, and so on), and hang up fake firecrackers (usually in red and gold).
You can also be creative and research other contemporary decorations that are more suitable to your house’s aesthetics. Our favorites this year are the Tet wreaths and these modern gigantic red paper flower strings.
A contemporary Tet decoration for your inspiration. Credit: Linh Tracy Bui