Explaining the “Hái Lộc Thánh” Tradition to Non-Vietnamese Catholics

Introduction: This weekend, many Southeast Asian Communities will be celebrating the Lunar New Year. As a Vietnamese Catholic, these upcoming days are an opportunity to see the beauty of cultural inculturation within Vietnamese Roman Catholicism. This piece which explains the custom of hái lộc thánh, was originally written for a third-year University course at the University of Toronto, Ritual and Worship, in which I speak of hái lộc as not, perhaps, a liturgical ritual, but a ritual in a loose, generic sense. The original paper has been condensed for ease of readability of readers of this blog.

A defining ritual for Vietnamese Catholic is called hái lộc thánh. Tết Nguyên Đán (or simply called Tết) are festive days for the Vietnamese people in general as it welcomes a new year in the lunar calendar. In Vietnam, these days are observed as a week-long statutory holiday. Through various decrees of the Vietnamese Conference of Catholic Bishops (one in 1971 and the other in 1991) [1] resulted in a section in the Vietnamese edition of the Roman Missal (1992) called, Thánh lễ theo Truyền Thống Dân Tộc – Masses according to Vietnamese Traditional Cultural Celebrations. The section has five Mass propers for Tết Nguyên Đán alone (out of the six available in the current 1992 edition of the Missal).[2] The second of the five propers is for the Mass at Night (or specifically Midnight – giao thừa). The collect states the following, “Cúi xin Chúa rộng ban cho chúng con một năm dồi dào phúc lộc.”[3] The translation of this is, “We humbly ask you Lord to grant us a year full of happiness and grace.”

“Lộc” is a term defined (in religious context) as gift and grace that is given without condition from the Creator. A read through the propers and Lectionary texts of the Masses of Tết Nguyên Đán, and the texts of the ritual of hái lộc thánh further exemplifies this theme. However, the origins of hái lộc traces back well before the introduction of Catholicism to Vietnam in the late 1620s.[4] Prior, people in Vietnam followed no organized religion, but followed a folk belief đạo thờ ông bà – a religion based on the veneration of ancestors, as well believing in some deities that would provide for one’s daily needs. Thus, the customs of Tết Nguyên Đán were heavily influenced by such notions of thanksgiving to the deities like Ông Trời (literally, the Sky, referencing the creator). As the new year began, people would go to temples asking the gods for a year with much lộc and prosperity.[5] The term has two meanings, one which is the grace from the gods, and the second definition of lộc as a small shoot of a plant or tree. Vietnamese would say of a new shoot, “cây nẩy lộc,” the plant has a new shoot.[6] Therefore, people went to these temples on the first day of Tết and hái (to pick) a branch and bring home and leave it on the home altar until the end of Tết.[7] This served as a reminder of a literal lộc, a new shoot from the tree, a reminder of rebirth, a new spring of the new year, but also the metaphorical lộc, to be showered upon one by the gods.[8]

While the celebration of Tết Nguyên Đán had been lurking within the realm of Catholicism since the time of Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes, S.J.[9], it was not until early 1980s [10] that after the first day of Tết Nguyên Đán, there began the custom of hái lộc thánh which literally means to “pick off a holy gift,” to enculturate folk Vietnamese custom into the lives of Vietnamese Catholic. As the Vietnamese diaspora continued throughout this time, the custom of hái lộc thánh was brought from Vietnam to diasporic Vietnamese Catholic communities, such as that of my own parish. There is no official ritual text from the Vietnamese Conference of Catholic Bishops, but one that I have located is seen distributed on several Vietnamese Diocesan websites, such as that of the Diocese of Thanh Hóa.[11]

The ritual is simple: after the Prayer after Communion on the Midnight of Tết Nguyên Đán, the presider, “still wearing his chasuble,” – the ritual notes – goes to a large tree containing little scrolls or parchments. The pastoral note in the text interestingly notes the presider and congregation to “avoid turning this act of blessing and distribution into an act at a Vietnamese concert or festival.”  The presider or a lay minister may open the rite with a few words of introduction which describes the history and enculturation of the act of hái lộc. The presider would then say a brief prayer of blessing and sprinkle the scrolls or parchments with holy water.

The scrolls are slips of paper rolled up, or folded parchments which are beautifully printed with a Bible verse that either instructs (e.g. Lk 6:29) or gives a prompt for action (e.g. Mk 16:15), or even a mix of both (e.g. Mt 5:3). The congregation would then line up in an orderly fashion to “pick” a lộc thánh off the tree. This imitates the lộc from the folk tradition, but rather than a branch of a tree, it is a branch from the Tree of Life, Jesus Christ, which would serve as the compass for the new year, and a reminder of the lộc – the grace – which God pours down on His children. The scrolls or parchments are opened either after Mass with friends or opened at home with family. It is always a joyous, but at the same time prayerful moment to open the lộc and see what God wishes to remind one in the upcoming Lunar year. Hái lộc thánh is not to be mistaken as superstitious or “bible bingo.” It is a tangible reminder for one to live and treat the Scriptures with “loyalty and reverence,”[12] as well as the centrality of God in the life of every Christian.

Hái lộc thánh is a cherished ritual among the Vietnamese Catholic Community. While the ritual may not be deemed a ritual liturgically (since there are no liturgical books that have such ritual), it meets the elements of a ritual. It is a cyclical ritual that has specific meaning and actions associated with the act, steeped in centuries of history, and later enculturated in a Catholic context. Specifically, hái lộc thánh is one of the customs that marks Tết Nguyên Đán for the Vietnamese Catholics to the point that I would say that there is no Tết without hái lộc thánh of some way or form, because it is one of the defining hallmarks of this festival, giving Tết its spiritual meaning. As for the future of the custom at least for Vietnamese Catholics outside of Vietnam, it is the hope of parents and grandparents that young people will truly come to understand and appreciate hái lộc thánh in its cultural and spiritual sense.

[1] Phạm 2021. In this article about the Thánh lễ Theo Truyền Thống Dân Tộc (Masses according to Vietnamese Traditional Cultural Celebrations), Fr. Ái stated (in my translation): “The Vietnamese Conference of Catholic Bishops released two decisions (on August 16, 1971 and April 1991) to form and structure a number of special Masses specific for the Catholic Church in Vietnam according to the Vietnamese harvest season or Vietnamese local customs and traditions.”

[2] The other indicated is that for the Tết Trung Thu – Mid-Autumn Festival. Fr. Ái states that there are two more celebrations: May 5, for crops and agriculture of Vietnam, and September 2, for Vietnam’s Independence Day. These two propers are not available in the 1992 Missal but may appear in the forthcoming edition of the Vietnamese translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. 

[3] Sách Lễ Rô-ma (Missale Romanum) 1992, 1039

[4] Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes, S.J. was one of the first foreign missionaries to Vietnam who arrived in Thanh Hóa in 1627.

[5] Nguyễn 2011

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rite of “Picking” Lộc Thánh, 4

[8] See also, the Rite of “Picking” Lộc Thánh, 4

[9] While there seemed to be no Mass texts in the Tridentine Liturgy for Tết Nguyên Đán until the Missale Romanum of 1992 in Vietnamese, according to Fr. Ái, there was a custom dating to the time of Fr. de Rhodes’ (known by the Vietnamese as “Cha Đắc Lộ”) missionary work in Vietnam that the first three days of Tết Nguyên Đán be dedicated to three different intentions: The first day being for peace in the family, the country and the world; the second day being the repose of the souls of ancestors; the third day is for the sanctification of the work of human hands. (See Phạm 2021, question 5) These intentions are still maintained to this day and serve as the overall theme for the Propers of the Tết Masses in the 1992 edition of the Roman Missal in Vietnamese. 

[10] Nguyễn 2011

[11] http://giaophanthanhhoa.net/Image/Picture/tu-lieu/NGHI%20THUC%20HAI%20LOC%20THANH%202017%20A4.pdf

[12] Dei Verbum 11


“Nghi Thức Hái Lộc Thánh (Rite of ‘Picking’ Lộc Thánh).” Diocese of Thánh Hóa, 2017. http://giaophanthanhhoa.net/Image/Picture/tu-lieu/NGHI%20THUC%20HAI%20LOC%20THANH%202017%20A4.pdf.  

Nguyễn, Bishop Paul Hòa Văn. “Từ Hái Lộc Và Xin Xăm Ngày Xuân Đến Hái Lộc Lời Chúa. (The definition of Hái Lộc and Intercession during Lunar New Year to Hái Lộc of the Word of God.)” Archdiocese of Sàigòn, February 2, 2011. https://www.tgpsaigon.net/bai-viet/tu-hai-loc-va-xin-xam-ngay-xuan-den-hai-loc-loi-chua-40899.  

Phạm, Rev. Joseph Ái Đình. “Hỏi Đáp Về Thánh Lễ Trong Dịp Tết Nguyên Đán. (Frequently Asked Questions about the Masses of Tết Nguyên Đán.)” Archdiocese of Sàigòn, February 2, 2021. https://www.tgpsaigon.net/bai-viet/hoi-dap-ve-thanh-le-trong-dip-tet-nguyen-dan-63114.  

Pope Paul VI. “Dei Verbum – Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Dei verbum. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 18, 1965. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html.  

“Thánh Lễ Theo Truyền Thống Dân Tộc. (Masses according to Vietnamese Traditional Cultural Celebrations.)” Section. In Sách Lễ Rô-ma (Missale Romanum), 1037–47, 1992.


About Vincent Pham

Vincent is a humanities student of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He hopes to pursue a double major in Ethics, Law and Society, and Philosophy.
This entry was posted in Catholic Reflection, Catholicism, Christian, Liturgy, Roman Missal and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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