The winter holidays can be a time of wonder, excitement, and even a little stress. Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day keep us busy from the beginning of December into the first half of February with parties, shopping, cooking, decorating and celebrating. Each of these holidays has its own special history and the cheery customs, handed down over time and generations, help make this time of year especially meaningful.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah, which can fall any time between late November and late December as determined by the Hebrew calendar, is a time in which members of the Jewish faith come together to celebrate family and friends and to reinforce their identities as followers of Judaism. The eight day holiday celebrates the Jewish people rising up against their oppressors to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem in 168 B.C. When the ancient Jews relit the eternal light in their Temple they had enough oil to light it for just one night. Miraculously, the oil did not run out and the candle stayed burning for eight nights.

Sara Faye Marten and Susan Pearlman, both longtime members of Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale, explained the meaning of Hanukkah and the ways it is celebrated in their families.

“It’s a fun holiday, especially for kids, because it involves presents, the Dreidel game, and lighting candles,” said Pearlman.

During the Hanukkah celebration, a menorah with nine candles is placed in the home. The eight outer candles represent the nights the oil kept burning in Jerusalem, while the ninth, middle candle, called the shamash, is used to light a candle each of the eight nights. While the candle burns each evening, family members gather to sing favorite songs, read cherished children’s books and say traditional blessings.

“At the holidays we all have traditional things we do and at my house, my children were each able to pick a menorah to add to the lighting every night so by the end of eight nights we had a whole fire going,” said Marten.

While it is customary to avoid any type of work while the candles are burning, children often use this time to play dreidel. For small prizes, each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel and whichever player’s side is facing up when it stops, that child gives or takes a treat from the pot.

“We would play for pennies, or M&M’s, or chocolates. My grandson always gets a dreidel filled with candy. His favorite is chocolate kisses and they fit perfectly,” said Marten.

While there are many aspects of Hanukkah that involve jovial play and singing, the overall meaning of the holiday is just as important to the Jewish community. The experience of sitting with your loved ones, in the soft light of a menorah’s glow, is a cherished time for Jewish families to give thanks for arriving at this special time of year once again.

“It’s a fun holiday but the message is everybody being free to celebrate in their own way,” said Pearlman.

Christmas

Another favorite holiday during the blustery winter season is Christmas. While shoppers start seeing decor pop up in stores as early as August each year, the real yuletide magic happens on and around the 25th of December. Christmas is a time for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus while also participating in traditions such as giving gifts and decorating Christmas trees.

Giving presents is a reminder of the gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, bestowed upon Jesus by the three wise men. Relaxing with family, next to a beautifully decorated tree, surrounded by a heap of discarded wrapping paper, is a common scene on Christmas Day. But the celebration starts earlier in the month for many families.

For Diann Gordon, a resident of Carbondale, Christmas festivities begin the day after Thanksgiving and don’t end until the week after the New Year. In the home she shares with her husband, decorations, cookies, and music are easy to come by during those convivial weeks of celebration. Decorating the Christmas tree is one of the favorite Christmas customs in the Gordon household.

“We always buy a live tree, as we love the smell in the house and just haven’t wanted to get an artificial one. I have some ornaments that my mom put on our tree, and it brings back Christmas memories from my childhood of shopping for ornaments at Marshall Field’s in Chicago,” said Gordon.

Christmas trees originally came into practice when ancient Egyptians and Romans decorated their dwellings with evergreen branches during the winter solstice to remind themselves of the coming spring. Only in sixteenth century Germany did the Christmas tree as we know it today begin to come into the picture, decorated with candles, candy and glass ornaments.

There are so many charming and bright ways to celebrate Christmas and while each family’s traditions are a little different, all can agree that it is a time to sit back and enjoy the many cherished rituals of the holiday.

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, which is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 each year, is a seven day celebration of African American culture. The holiday was created by Maulana Karenga around 1966 and has become more popular each year as a way for African Americans to reconnect to their heritage.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa, unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are represented by seven different candles. A black candle for the people, three red candles to symbolize their struggle and three green candles to signify the future. During a Kwanzaa celebration, homes are decorated with fruits and vegetables that represent African beliefs, as well as African cloths and pieces of art. The candle holder, or kinara, is placed on a ceremonial mat, called a mkeka. The black candle is lit on the first night of celebration and the others are lit each of the following nights from left to right.

Linda Flowers of Carbondale began celebrating Kwanzaa when her children were young and remembers fondly the years spent with members of the Kwanzaa community in celebration.

“On the seventh day of Kwanzaa there’s a big celebration. When my kids were little, getting together with the other families is what we looked forward to,” shared Flowers.

The cultural celebration is a catalyst for bringing beloved family and friends together to look back on the history of African culture while also preparing each other to look forward to a harmonious future.

“Kwanzaa is a time of remembrance. To remember your African roots and remember those principles that you may want to strive for each day of your life,” said Flowers.

A week long celebration of African culture that focuses on adversity faced in the past and thoughtful goals for the future, Kwanzaa is an invigorating and peaceful way to end the year and look ahead to the coming months of renewal.

New Year’s

At the end of December, the party is just getting started when revelers head out for New Year’s Eve bashes. Whether going to a party at a friend’s house or hitting the town with a group of friends, New Year’s Eve is an evening full of fancy eats, sparkly clothing and the telltale pop of champagne corks.

Aaron Chapman, co-owner of The Newell House in Carbondale along with Chris Daly, said that New Year’s Eve is the biggest night of their year, aside from spring and fall graduation at SIU. Chapman always expects large groups to make reservations that evening and the restaurant plans accordingly for the fete.

“We always stock plenty of extra champagne on New Year’s Eve. We also usually feature more high-end offerings on New Year’s Eve, such as fresh lobster tails and steak specials,” shared Chapman.

Besides the jovial crowd of diners celebrating over delightful cuisine in the restaurant, The Grotto Lounge in the lower level of The Newell House sees plenty of action, too.

“We always have a complimentary champagne toast at midnight in the lounge, as well as a DJ or live music, so we see to it that the champagne flows one way or another,” said Chapman.

Champagne has long been a drink used to mark special occasions since it first appeared in the sixteenth century. French royals considered champagne to be a symbol of status and wealth and the bubbly drink eventually became associated with the holiday season, namely New Year's Eve. A well thought out ad campaign for champagne in the 1800s cemented the fizzy drink as a beverage for both the wealthy and common folk alike to have in hand at the stroke of midnight each New Year’s Eve. Since that time the drink has been a mainstay in New Year’s celebrations held at every venue from the fanciest of restaurants to quiet dinners at home.

Valentine’s Day

After several weeks of getting homes and schedules back in order, Valentine’s Day awaits in the second week of February. The two most popular gifts for husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, and family to exchange are chocolates and flowers.

Chocolate has been a treasured treat since the Mayan civilization in 2600 B.C., becoming wildly popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, and finally earning its enduring role as a Valentine’s Day treat around 1861 when Richard Cadbury began packaging chocolates in heart shaped boxes.

Linda Meherg, owner of The Chocolate Factory in Golconda, is a local favorite for chocolate orders and the shop offers a variety of treats.

“We have heart-shaped boxes, regular boxes that say Happy Valentine’s Day, we take orders for chocolate covered strawberries, and we sell a lot of chocolate suckers,” shared Meherg.

The Chocolate Factory also prepares long stem roses in which the flower bud is made out of chocolate. Chocolate orders tend to come in much closer to the actual holiday, as compared to Christmas or Easter, but Meherg has learned to anticipate the rush.

Equally prepared for the eleventh hour swarm of Valentine’s Day shoppers is Tina Simpson who has owned and operated Les Marie Florist in Herrin for more than thirty years with her husband, Jim.

“Valentine’s Day is the biggest one day of the year. The day a florist dreads all year round. You can never be prepared because people wait until the last minute,” said Simpson.

Sweethearts want to make sure their partners feel appreciated and pampered, and nothing says romance like a red rose. The red rose gained its status as the flower of love during the Victorian era when gentlemen callers would send a bouquet of red roses to their intended. The flower has remained a symbol of passion and adoration, whether it be a single stem or an overflowing vase of dozens.

The multitude of holidays from December to February is enough to make one’s head spin with the lively mix of music, gifts, food, and gatherings, as well as the expectation to uphold the traditional festivities embraced by our culture. One thing to remember during these cold weather celebrations is the reason for each individual holiday. Focusing on kindness, positivity and love is the tenor of the winter holidays.

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