Holidays traditions in NEPA
First Posted: 12/1/2014
Whether you are Catholic, Jewish or leading a secular journey, most people can agree that the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year. (Spoiler alert! Even Scrooge eventually found the spirit of the holidays in “A Christmas Carol”.)
No matter what your beliefs are or background is, ‘tis the season for celebrating gratitude, get-togethers between families and friends and serving time-honored traditions.
Around the world, some celebrated customs include Ta Chiu in Hong Kong, where they pray to the gods and ghosts of their ancestors asking that they will fulfill their wishes for the next year; Noel, which is Christmas in France, with the twist of Pere Noel, father of Christmas, delivering gifts to children, and Kwanzaa in the United States, a holiday created in 1966 by Ronald Karenga (founder of the Black Power group “Us Organization”) through which African Americans can connect with their heritage and culture instead of celebrating holidays of the dominant cultures in America.
In NEPA, the holidays are a time for honoring traditions that continue to be passed down from previous generations and diverse cultures. Here are some ways residents in the community celebrate the holidays.
Carrying on a tradition
Elena Alma of Philadelphia is looking forward to returning home to Dunmore to celebrate the holidays with her family for their annual Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve. Though the table will be filled with aunts, uncles, cousins and other immediate relatives, one person will be noticeably absent: Elena’s mother, Mary Archer, who lost a battle with Lymphoma in August.
“Christmas was my mother’s favorite time of the year. She loved being around all of her family, giving thoughtful gifts that were always so beautifully wrapped and preparing an exorbitant amount of delicious food for the Feast of the Seven Fishes,” Alma said.
The tradition of serving fish on Christmas Eve dates back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence, when Catholics would refrain from eating meat on the eve of specific holy days. Although it is unclear what the number seven represents, some theories suggest it symbolizes completion, as represented in Genesis 2:2: “By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”
Alma’s family has carried this tradition for more than a century as all of her eight great-grandparents were Italian immigrants that shared the tradition with their families. Alma personally remembers her grandmother preparing the feast for years before passing the tradition to her mother, who always loved telling the story of how Alma’s cousin Jon wouldn’t eat a thing all Christmas Eve day so he could be ready to eat all of her delicious food.
“My mother’s family always made fish when she was growing up, but it wasn’t always seven different dishes. When she met my dad, the idea of making seven dishes was introduced to her because my dad’s father was very superstitious and always had to have seven fish on the table,” Alma said.
The recipes are dishes that have been passed down over the years, Alma said.
“There are four standard dishes that were cooked in Italy on Christmas Eve: smelts, calamari, baccala and pasta with anchovies. The other three are fish our family likes: shrimp, clams and lobster,” Alma said.
As the first Christmas Eve approaches since her mother’s passing, Alma is both nervous and excited to carry on the tradition of the holiday.
“I am very thankful that as one of my wedding shower gifts, my mom made me a recipe book with all of her great Italian dishes including all of the recipes for the Feast of the Seven Fish dinner. I am going to try my best to serve my mother’s feast justice,” Alma said.
Currently four generations deep into celebrating the feast, Alma will start the fifth generation of Itlian-Americans to celebrate Christmas Eve with her first child who is expected after the new year.
“For my family, Christmas is a time for all of us to get together, laugh, catch up and just enjoy each other. My mother always made the holiday so special for everyone. She loved decorating the house for Christmas and always set a beautiful table for the feast, which has been part of our family’s tradition for more than 100 years,” Alma said.
Carrying on with tradition, Alma is looking forward to continuing the feast so her unborn child will one day understand the importance of family and tradition – and, like any good Italian, to experience good food.
Keeping the tradition
Sure, there may be a long line to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall, but not every child in the area is preparing a wish list for jolly St. Nick. At the Jewish Community Center of Scranton, Rika Schaffer and her preschoolers are counting the days until Hanukkah.
“This year Hanukkah will begin on the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 16. The holiday is always a different day on the secular calendar because it starts on the 25th day of the Jewish month, Kiselv on the Hebrew calendar,” explained Schaffer, early childhood director at the area JCC.
While many children in the area are busy writing letters to Santa, the children at the JCC are occupied learning the history of their ancestry and celebrating a time-honored tradition that honors blessings and miracles.
“Hanukkah is a time to celebrate miracles. There were two great miracles that happened. The first miracle was that the Jews defeated the great, big Greek army to regain control of Jerusalem. The second miracle happened when it came time to light the menorah. The temple was destroyed and in shambles from the Greeks. The Jews searched the entire temple, but could only find one small jar of pure oil to light the menorah. That small jar of oil somehow lasted eight days, until a new jar could be brought. That miracle is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days,” Schaffer said.
Even though the celebration lasts eight days, there are actually nine candles on the menorah.
“Eight of the arms are for the candles which represent the eight miracle days, and the ninth arm is for the candle used to light the others,” Schaffer explained.
Gifts are often given to small children on each night of Hanukkah as an incentive to sweeten the learning of the Torah.
Don’t forget the presents
For some people in NEPA, the holidays are all about gift-exchanging, and Cami Kyttle of Hunlock Creek doesn’t think there is anything selfish about it.
“I’m not an atheist. I believe in God and I understand the history of Christmas, but I also think the holiday is all about being with your family,” Kyttle said.
Every year, Kyttle, an only child, wakes up at the crack of dawn to exchange gifts with her parents – even as an adult. The rest of the day is spent listening to Christmas music, making breakfast and spending time with each other.
“I understand that people think giving gifts overshadows the meaning of Christmas, but I have to disagree. Gift-exchanging brings people together and gives you a chance to show your appreciation for your loved ones. Exchanging presents doesn’t have to be materialistic if there is thought behind it. You can get your dad the ugliest tie in the world, and he’ll wear it all-year round with pride that it was a gift from his kid, who thought it was nice. Exchanging presents brings my family together and is our way we show our appreciation for each other and all that we have done for each other throughout the year,” Kyttle said.
Jean Exantus of Wilkes-Barre couldn’t agree more.
“Growing up, I was taught that exchanging gifts was about being selfless and putting other people before you. I look forward to getting gifts because I know they are coming from a person who cares about me and I look forward to giving gifts because it allows me to show someone my gratitude for having them be a part of my life,” Exantus said.
Whether your beliefs or background lead you to celebrate the holiday season with feasts, honoring your ancestry or acknowledging the people closest to you, one common theme of holidays seems to be love and appreciation. As anyone reading this may be celebrating the holidays differently, hopefully it be filled with laughter, joy and love.