This Christmas Eve, Thim Pham and Hanh Tran and an extended family of 150 will gather in their Garden Grove home to feast on Vietnamese delicacies and pray around a television set whose workings have been carefully replaced with a creche showing Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the animals and the Three Wise Men.
In Santa Ana, Jane Fantauzzi will cook her New Mexican specialties, going out in the evening to join las posada s, a community procession that wends its way from home to home re-creating the journey of Joseph and Mary.
A few weeks earlier, Art and Cheri Kessner will have unpacked their favorite menorah, an 18-pound replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and placed it in a kitchen window so its light falls on the greenbelt outside their Irvine home. On the eight successive nights of Hanukkah, they light a new candle on the religious candelabrum, which symbolizes an ancient Jewish miracle and victory over enemies.
Circumstances of war, marriage and opportunity brought these people from their native homes to Orange County. They have guarded their traditions and customs as a way of keeping their families together and their faith alive.
For Thim Pham and Hanh Tran, their eight children and scores of relatives, Christmas is the year's most important event. It is a time for the lifelong Catholics to renew their spiritual and family bonds in a land that after 13 years remains difficult in many ways.
Neither is yet fluent in English, and a steady income, always a struggle, now seems even more elusive after Hanh's recent heart attack.
Hanh, 42, a former Vietnamese soldier, and Thim, 39, fled their coastal town of Vung Tau in a fishing boat in 1975 when their homeland fell to the North Vietnamese. The family entered the United States at Camp Pendleton and was first sponsored by a Mojave grower who wanted Hanh to pick tea leaves. They came to Orange County under the sponsorship of Sister Rosemarie Redding, a sister of St. Joseph.
Their first Christmas was held in the order's motherhouse in Orange. This year, an extended family of 150 will pack into the couple's Garden Grove home, decorated year-round with shrines to the Virgin Mary. One room has been turned into a chapel.
The gathering will include Thim and Hanh's eight children, ages 3 to 21 (two of the older children are students at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton), Hanh's mother and other family members, 50 of whom came over with them in 1975.
Most Vietnamese in Orange County are Buddhists or Confucianists and do not celebrate Christmas.
Those who are Catholic have assimilated European customs such as Christmas trees and Santa Claus--known back home as Ong Gia Noel , a man who dressed in red cloth and passed out candy to village children, said Tam Tran, 17, who is disabled by polio and one of the older children who can translate for his parents.
In Vietnam, men from the village traditionally constructed their own manger scenes in front of the village church. Here, because they are a minority in their local parish, Hanh and other men drive to Riverside each year to build an outdoor papier-mache creche beside a Vietnamese Catholic Church, Den Thanh Duc Me Dang Con, Holy Mother of God Church. It usually takes a week.
In Vietnam, they rarely could afford a Christmas tree, Tam said. This year the family will have a Christmas tree and electric lights strung around the house. But with two of the children in college and Hanh unable to work as a carpenter due to poor health, gift giving will be modest and limited.
Gifts are exchanged only by adults representing their family groups. For example, one family might give another family a picture of Pope John Paul II, said Tam.
On Dec. 24, they will sing Vietnamese Christmas carols at a special Vietnamese service at St. Barbara's Church in Santa Ana, where an estimated 20% of the parishioners are Vietnamese. The family will return home to a house decorated with paper banners. They will gather to pray around a creche, constructed by Tam inside an old television set whose wires have been removed. He said he bought the clay animal and human figures at a Riverside swap meet.
After prayers, the family will feast on dishes they have prepared and those contributed by others. The menu will include egg rolls; roast pig; mang cua soup, young bamboo shoots and crab meat prepared in chicken broth; cha lua, a meat paste; xoi, sweet rice colored red; and cha tom, a shrimp paste.
After the religious observances, "Christmas is like a big birthday or Thanksgiving dinner," Tam said.
The next morning, the family will return to church at 6:30 a.m., then breakfast on noodle soup and spend a relaxed day visiting with relatives.
For Jane Fantauzzi, 74, Christmas means Albuquerque, N.M., and a deeply etched memory of light filling the black desert night while brothers and sisters, parents and children awaited the birthday of the Christ child.