Standing in the warm afternoon sun, the smell of incense hanging in the air outside Garden Grove's Vietnam Temple, Kim Hoang gently rubbed lemon slices against a tarnished brass urn.
"I just need it to shine for the new year," said Hoang, 70, concentrating on an annoying black smudge. "Everything has to be new, clean and fresh."
Hoang, who has volunteered at the temple for eight years, is among the thousands of Asians across Southern California who are preparing for the Lunar New Year, which arrives Sunday when it will become the Year of the Dog.
Like the Chinese New Year and the Korean Sol, Tet Nguyen Dan -- known simply as Tet -- is the most significant holiday of the year for the Vietnamese. In some ways, it is equal parts Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.
For the roughly 250,000 Vietnamese who live in Southern California, many in Orange County's Little Saigon community, it is a time for renewal and family gatherings. Children receive li xi, or lucky money, in red envelopes. And elders are given symbolic fruit and traditional rice cakes from family members.
Thousands attend Garden Grove's Tet Festival, with its traditional food, cultural exhibits and rides. The traditional dragon dances and parades of past celebrations have been canceled in recent years because of organizational problems.
The celebration also has a more somber side, with people gathering at temples to pray for ancestors. Offerings are also made at homemade shrines to pay respect to those who came before.
But mostly, it's a joyous event.
"It will be a big party," Hoang said. "I'm always busy this time of year."
Since Hoang came to the United States in 1975, she has made sweet rice and desserts every Tet as offerings to her parents and grandparents who died long ago in Vietnam. For years, as many as 50 relatives would gather in her living room in front of a shrine to pray. But since the size of her family has nearly doubled, the gatherings have been moved to the Vietnam Temple.
"It doesn't matter how long ago they've died," Hoang said. "It is our culture to remember them and pay homage."
It is believed that the first week of the new year foreshadows the fortunes or misfortunes of the year ahead. Children try to be on their best behavior, lest they be doomed to get in trouble all year. Cleaning the house is forbidden for fear it might "sweep out" the good luck. And the first person to step inside the home in the new year should be someone who is healthy, prosperous and of good character.
Tien Tran, 40, of Montebello is making her rounds to 10 temples. She said it may bring better luck and good health to her mother who is in a coma. "I'm hoping she could be healthy for the new year," Tran said. "This would be a perfect time to ask for that."
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The Tet Festival, celebrating the Year of the Dog, continues through Sunday at Garden Grove Park.
What: A festival celebrating lunar year 4703-04. When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Admission: Adults $5, children $4, toddlers free
Where: Garden Grove Park
9301 Westminster Ave.
Parking: Free parking at Bolsa Grande High School; free parking and shuttle service from Carrillo Elementary School.
Sources: Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. Of Southern California