Many months, 10,000 miles and another world from home, parishioners of the Church of the Blessed Vietnanamese Martyrs in Annandale are preparing for Christmas.
Like other Catholic parishes across the country, the Annandale church will highlight its celebrations with a series of masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But at Blessed Martyrs, despite the loss of homeland and the thoughts of friends and family left behind, several hundred Vietnamese families will be giving a special thanks.
"This year is special," says their pastor, the Rev. Tran Duy Nhat. "This year we have a church of our own."
In many ways the Vietnamese Christmas for these new Americans will be distinctly different: a cosmopolitan blend of Vietnamese, Portuguese and French traditions.
Because the church has its own building, rather than space at a nearby high school as for past Christmases, the holiday will be more attuned to the traditions of Vietnam. But parishioners have found that the new building also means new responsibilities.
"This year, Father Nhat is stressing the idea of not spending too much on gifts and Christmas cards," says Thu H. Bui, head of the parish council, so that parishioners may help pay off more than $100,000 still owed on the property.
The traditions that will be celebrated, Bui says, began with Portuguese missionaries who introduced Catholicism to Vietnam in the 16th century. But the greatest foreign influence came from the French, who colonized Vietnam in the 1850s and stayed until 1954 when the two Vietnams gained independence.
One particularly French tradition is a turkey dinner for Christmas. Like many foreign traditions, this was given a Vietnamese twist. Because most of the people could not afford turkey, Bui says, chicken became the widespread substitution.
Two Vietnamese additions to Chritmas are a hand da, a large cave made of paper or other material where the Nativity scene is placed, and den ngoi sao, five-pointed stars that serve as lanterns.
The star lanterns, of course, represent the star of Bethlehem, Bui says. The paper cave represents the stable where Christ was born. Similar paper caves are made in Spain, Italy and Mexico, where evergreen materials are scarce.
"You could buy them in Vietnam," Bui said, "but most of the time we made them ourselves, and we would spend a lot of time making them."
The cave in Bui's own home shows a particularly American influence: It is made of tin foil.
Just before Christmas, parishioners will place a large cave and star inside their new church with paper flowers decorating the sanctuary. One other tradition, which Bui recalls with fondness, will not be observed.
"From top to bottom, you would see stars all over the church, inside and outside, thousands of them."
The harsher North American climate also will put a damper on other traditions.
In Vietnam, parishioners usually led a Christmas Eve procession carrying lighted candles and lanterns. The younger people then would camp around the church to sing, dance and perform a nativity play.
This year, there will still be the songs, dances and play, Father Nhat says, but all the action will be indoors.
"Many families expect to see their first snow," Bui adds, "and the children are excited about having their first white Christmas. But it's too cold and we have to quit our outdoor activities."
In Vietnam, where only 10 percent of the population was Catholic, Tet (the lunar new year), not Christmas, was the major holiday.
But Mai Bui, a Buddhist until she married Bui, says that as the Vietnam War continued more and more people, Christian and non-Christian, joined in Christmas celebrations.
"During the last few years (of South Vietnam), thousands would stand outside (the Saigon Cathedral) to celebrate," she said. They came for the spirit and to listen to the carols and to sing along."
Because of the war, she said, many of her countrymen took every chance they had "to enjoy themselves as much as they could."
Despite the anticipation at Blessed Martyrs, church members say there have been some problems.
Since opening in September, the church has been plagued by vandalism. Part of the church fence has been stolen, eggs have been thrown, windows broken and items stolen from parishioners' cars during evening services.
At first, Bui said, he and other church members thought the vandalism was a racial threat.
"(But) we have talked to the neighbors and they are receiving the same treatment. We have learned to live with it. It's just kids' stuff, but I don't understand that kind of fun."
Fairfax County police spokesman Warren Carmichael said there is no indication the vanadlism had anything to do with the nationality of the church members.
"Vandalism is countywide," he said "and not any more of a problem in the area of the church than it is elsewhere in the county."
Carmichael said the police are seeking volunteers who can speak English to report vandalism or other crimes, and Bui said members of the parish, on an "intermittent" basis, are now bringing sleeping bags to the church and spending the night.
But the memories of Christmases past is the biggest drawback for parishioners this year, Bui said.
"For many of us, we are just thankful for being here. But the happiness is (muted) when you think of those left behind."
Still, says Father Nhat, who will celebrate mass on Christmas day with the Rev. Huu Nguyen, 99, Christmas at the Blessed Martyrs means the same as t does for Christians across the world.
"Christmas is the time of joy, of happiness, of peace."