Christmas came in 36 tiny red stockings last week to Cong V. Nguyen, his wife, Ly Can, and his three children.

Laughter and chatter in Vietnamese and English drowned the dialogue of a television soap opera in the family's South Arlington apartment. Two-year-old Loan, her dark eyes wide and cheeks flushed, stared soberly at the Christmas tree. Six-month-old Thanh drummed on the box holding his present, a set of huge plastic beads, which he promptly chewed.

Ly Can, 33, tore the paper from her gift and gingerly pulled a gleaming new toaster oven from the box. "I wished to have the oven," she said, "but this was a surprise."

The celebration came suddenly to the Nguyens, but it evolved, unknown to the family, over several weeks and through the efforts of dozens of volunteers.

Two weeks ago, members of an Arlington senior citizens group fished dollar bills from their pockets, tucked them into miniature red felt stockings and let them dangle from the boughs of a church Christmas tree.

Thursday morning, agents from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service took $75 that the group had donated and combed Zayre's on Wilson Boulevard for an hour.

The extension agents draped tinsel on a live tree in the Nguyens' tiny apartment, piled presents swathed in Santa Claus paper under the branches and carted boxes of donated bread, fruit and milk into the room.

The unexpected Christmas made Ly Can cry. "It makes me homesick for my family," she told a bilingual extension agent, and her dark eyes filled with tears. Then she smiled, staring at the pineapples, presents, Christmas ornaments and cartons of milk. "When 7-year-old Hung comes home from school," she said, "it will be a surprise for him. And my husband will be happy."

The Nguyens left Vietnam more than two years ago, walking through forests to Cambodia and then to Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp for more than a year. After several months in the Philippines, they found their way to the United States and settled in Arlington.

They did not know about the members of Resurrection Lutheran Church's Leisure Group -- but the group found the Nguyens. Two weeks ago, Marian Ullrich, 71, watched as members of the group carefully folded bills into the stockings and lined up to loop them on the tree.

" The group wanted to be sure that someone who really needed it got the money," said Martha Copenhaver, home economics extension agent for the county's Southeast Asian program. " The Nguyens are struggling. They're willing to sacrifice themselves in order to make it on their own."

Cong Nguyen works at a Tysons Corner carwash. His wife has learned the basics of nutrition, grocery shopping and housekeeping, American style, from Phung Luong, a Vietnamese extension agent.

When Luong and Copenhaver browsed through the aisles of Zayre's on Thursday, Luong kept a careful tally of the pennies and dollars -- $5.99 for a yellow truck, $8 for a little girl's sweater with lavender reindeer. Including the toaster oven, the final tally was pennies away from the $75 limit.

Everything else -- the tree, the tinsel and ornaments, the wrapping paper and tiny tags -- was donated, Copenhaver said. A supermarket gave candy-filled stockings for each child, and loaves of bread, cartons of chocolate milk, plus pineapples and grapefruit and sweet potatoes.

With some of the presents opened, the rest left for Nguyen and Hung, the food put away and a red velveteen ribbon pinned to the apartment door, Ly Can dabbed at her eyes with a blue-and-white striped washcloth, hugged the extension agents and spoke rapidly in Vietnamese.

Luong translated for the other extension agents: "She said she doesn't speak English well, but she will try to learn more for the next time. She wanted to thank you all for coming today. She said . . ." Luong groped for the idiom -- "that this makes her warm in the heart."