Imagine all the food of Christmas and Thanksgiving, with the added punch of fireworks, lion dances and the Vietnamese equivalent of Guy Lombardo.
It all starts at midnight Tuesday, when Orange County's Vietnamese population--the largest in the world outside of Vietnam--rings in the year 4685, the Year of the Dragon, with the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year.
Last year, an estimated 75,000 celebrators visited the Asian Gardens mall in Westminster's Little Saigon shopping district for the new year festivities, and a similar number are expected this year at festivities in Centennial Regional Park, Santa Ana, said Tony Lam, a local businessman and one of the founders of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in Orange County.
For many of the county's nearly 100,000 Southeast Asian residents, Tet--which begins at midnight Tuesday and continues four days--represents hope, renewal, rebirth and an opportunity to show love and respect for family members both living and dead, said Cao Duong Pham, a professor of history who lives in Huntington Beach and teaches classes on the Vietnamese-American experience at UCLA and Cal State Long Beach.
"It isn't just the beginning of the new year," Pham said. "It's also an opportunity to welcome spring. It's a turning point of time and a very important omen during the coming year, very important in Oriental philosophy. Everyone has hope for better times."
For Nghia Van Pham, owner of Saigon Commercial Printing Center in the Asian Village shopping center, the good times began several days before Tet, when he began to fill orders for thousands of greeting cards reading "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" --happy new year in Vietnamese. He said he had sold nearly 40,000 cards by Feb. 1, many of them bound for family members still living in Vietnam.
Symbolism plays a major role in nearly every Tet observance, whether public or private. In stores and homes this month, one is likely to see small cherry trees representative of the coming of spring, or small festive altars with incense, representing stability and longevity, Cao Duong Pham said.
Banners and scrolls, printed with requests for blessings of prosperity, longevity and happiness, also appear, Lam said.
And food--lots of it--is everywhere, Lam said, and much of it is prepared specifically for Tet in much the same way turkey is traditionally cooked for American Thanksgiving feasts. Among the exotic dishes are banh chung , a "typical Tet cake," Lam said, made of rice, mung beans and pork, wrapped in banana leaves. A type of Vietnamese fruit cake called mut also is baked, he said, and foods such as eggplant and shrimp are pickled as delicacies.
The idea, Lam said, is to lay in large amounts of food in each home, not only to invite prosperity in the coming year, but to feed visiting family and friends.
For Tet is, above all, a family time, Cao Duong Pham said. The first day of the celebration, he said, typically is spent at home with family members or at the home of parents. The second day often is reserved for visits by in-laws and the third for one's teachers, an old custom.
"It's a must for you to visit your teachers," Pham said, "to thank them for what they've done for you."
New year's eve--midnight Tuesday--is steeped in Oriental religion and philosophy, Pham said. It is then that the benevolent spirit that "takes care of everything that happens to the family in this living world" returns from the throne of the Jade Emperor in heaven. Known as the Kitchen God, this spirit is welcomed back to earth on the eve of Tet with feasting and family celebrations, Pham said.
A rigidly monitored new year's eve custom, Pham said, concerns the first person across the threshold of a home. Tradition holds, he said, that the first person to enter a Vietnamese home after the turn of the year will bring good luck and happiness to that house in the coming year.
"And if you're careful," said Pham, laughing, "you'll choose someone for that who is a good person, open-minded and easy to deal with."
Tet eve also has the significance of a family reunion, both for the living and the dead, Pham said, for Vietnamese philosophy holds that on that night the souls of ancestors return, "and the two worlds join and celebrate."
Public celebrations are scheduled today and Sunday at Centennial Regional Park, Edinger Avenue and Fairview Street, Santa Ana, Lam said. Festivities will feature rides, food booths, games, performances of traditional music and worship rituals, chess and sports tournaments, fireworks and lion dances. The celebrations, sponsored by the Southern California Vietnamese Student Assn., begin each day at 10 a.m. and continue until about 7:30 p.m., Lam said.