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By John R. Nieb
For centuries, people have celebrated either Christmas or Hanukkah, or both, during the month of December. Christmas, a Christian holiday, takes place on December 25 and celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated for eight days and nights to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after its desecration by the Syrians in 165 BC. When the Jews relit the Temple’s eternal flame, they had only enough pure olive oil to last for one day. The flame burned for eight days and that is the miracle of the holiday.
The holiday revolves around the lighting of a nine-branched Menorah or candelabra. After sundown on each of the holiday’s eight nights, one additional candle is lit in a family ceremony. The ninth candle, called the Shamash, or helper, is given a distinctive position above or below the other tapers and is used to light the others. Jews recite blessings during this ritual and display the Menorah prominently in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.
In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional foods are fried in olive oil. Potato pancakes, known as latkes and jam-filled donuts, known as Sufganiyot, are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called Dreidels, which are engraved with symbolic characters that determine the course of the game. The winner takes the pot of gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins called gelt and other goodies. Exchanging presents is also part of the celebrations. In recent decades, particularly in North America, Hanukkah has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or overlaps with Christmas. From a religious perspective, however, it remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities.
All Jewish holidays are determined by the Hebrew calendar, which differs from the standard calendar in use today. Each year, the holiday falls on different dates on the Gregorian calendar. Hanukkah may fall from late November through December rather than during the same week every year. The Hebrew calendar is based on the cycle of the moon, which is 29.5 days, so the Jewish year is only 354 days. An extra month is added every two to three years to offset the 11-day lag per solar year. This year, Hanukkah will last from sunset on December 12 to nightfall on December 20. In 2013, Thanksgiving fell during Hanukkah for the first time since 1899.
Michael and Kathy Ungerleider, who have been Granby residents for 20 years, celebrate Hanukkah for the traditional eight days lighting the Menorah, making potato latkes, giving presents to the children each night, and singing the blessings. This is a 24-year-long tradition, since the birth of their son Matthew. Generally, the tradition is to give one present to each child each night, but if the gifts are small, they will give an additional present to each child. When Matthew and Jennifer were younger, they would play Dreidel.
In recent years, Kathy bakes the latkes, rather than the traditional frying, because they are healthier that way, but the whole family agrees that they are tastier when fried. Rather than having one family Menorah, the Ungerleiders have three. Each of the children received menorahs as gifts when they were younger, and Kathy and Michael have a Menorah that they received as a wedding present.
“We light three Menorahs each night, which looks quite beautiful on day eight when all the candles are burning together,” Kathy said.
Michael and Kathy grew up with very different family traditions for Hanukkah. Michael and his family celebrated the more traditional way. The celebration consisted of Michael and his three siblings each receiving one small present each night and lighting the Menorah. On the last night, Michael and his siblings were given larger presents.
Unlike Christmas, where everybody exchanges presents, in his home, only the parents gave their children presents at Hanukkah. There was no present exchanging between siblings or parents.
On the other hand, when Kathy was younger, her parents owned three dress shops, in the Connecticut towns of Watertown, Thomaston, and Litchfield, called Davidson’s Dress Shop, and their busiest time of year was the Hanukkah and the Christmas season. Since Kathy’s parents worked until late at night, they got home too late to do more than light the menorah with their two young daughters and giving each of them one very small gift each night.
So, Kathy’s parents began the tradition of opening their Hanukkah presents on Christmas Day because that was their only day off. This tradition has continued for more than 50 years with Kathy’s family. Now Kathy, her husband, Michael, and their children, Matthew and Jennifer, still get together with her side of the family on Christmas Day to carry on the tradition.
Each year, the Ungerleiders also get together with Michael’s family in New Jersey for a festive celebration with all the aunts, uncles and cousins. A few weeks before Hanukkah, the adults each draw two of the children’s names and buy presents for them. A few years ago, the family started a new tradition where the adults get gag gifts for each other. “That has been so much fun and results in lots of laughter,” Kathy said. Getting together with family is Kathy’s favorite part about Hanukkah.
Penny Gitberg, a Granby resident for 24 years, passed her Hanukkah traditions on to her children. The Gitbergs light the Menorah candles every night for eight nights. They sing songs, say prayers and eat foods, such as potato latkes, apple sauce, and donuts. Potato latkes are made with grated potatoes, onion, eggs, flour and salt and usually fried in oil to make them crispy, and as a reminder of the miracle of the oil in ancient Jerusalem.
When Gitberg’s children were younger, they received one gift each night for eight days. In recent years, the Gitbergs have visited family, shared a meal and opened presents. When the children were younger, the family played the traditional game of Dreidel.
When the children were in school, they were among the few Jewish students in Granby. So, Gitberg used to bring in potato latkes, Hanukkah gelt, which are chocolate candies that look like coins, and play with Dreidels and she told the story of Hanukkah to the children and their teachers.
Hunter Stone, a Granby resident for 26 years, gets a Christmas tree every year, but not always at the same place. A live tree is relatively new to Stone’s Christmas; his mother has always had an artificial tree. Stone and his girlfriend, Amanda Whitty, go to their parents’ homes to share holiday meals and gift exchanging.
On Christmas, Stone is responsible for making sure that he, Whitty, and their daughter, McKenzie Lee, make it to all their family functions on time because Stone hates being late.
Stone, Whitty, and their families do Christmas once a year. However, Hunter, Amanda, and McKenzie hold a Christmas in July. “I love seeing all the family that we don’t always see all year,” Stone said. “It’s nice getting back together and catching up on everyone’s lives.”
Stone has always opened presents on Christmas morning for as long as he came remember.
Stone’s family Christmas dinner always features a big ham, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots. Other dishes that round out the meal varies year to year. Stone loves his mother’s sweet potato dish.
But, out of all the food served at Christmas, his favorite is Whitty’s mother’s baked beans. The special beans consist of beans, bacon, kielbasa, chunks of ham, and onions. Cookies are his favorite Christmas dessert.
Stone, Whitty, and their families share gifts and stories while they enjoy some holiday cheer. The family has always watched football, even if they don’t like the teams that are playing—the family loves the sport.
Carly O’Connor, who has lived in Granby for two years, says that her Christmas traditions changed over the last six years because she now has a three-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old stepson.
O’Connor Christmas visits with her stepson differ from year to year. One year she has him for Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, and the next year, she gets him around 10:30 a.m. on Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, O’Connor, her aunts and cousins visit their aunt who is in a nursing home in Windsor. She always has Christmas dinner at her mother’s house. Her mother prepares a prime rib with mashed potatoes, corn and a few new sides every year complete the meal.
O’Connor always uses the special china that her great grandfather brought back from World War II. The family jokes with O’Connor saying that the only way she’ll inherit the china is if she sets the table, clears it, and hand washes the dishes.
“I think it’s beautiful, so I take care of it,” she said.
Because she has a big family, where every adult has at least two children, they always do a Yankee swap. Since everyone doesn’t come every year, O’Connor says it’s the easiest way to exchange presents.
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