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Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Dec 4, 2009

Family Traditions - Discovering Your Heritage

For many families, the most memorable traditions are centered around holidays. Often these traditions hold special meaning because they represent a much loved and valued piece of family history. Each new generation may alter or add to existing traditions, but the roots of our holiday celebrations often date way back to our ancestors.

As genealogists, we can discover valuable clues about our ancestors by researching the roots of our holiday traditions. What a great way to celebrate our heritage -- and it may even help us learn something about our family tree. Families sometimes continue traditions even after their meaning and origins have been forgotten. Rediscovering where these traditions came from may help us to find the places from which our ancestors came.

In this article, we'll focus on two of the largest holidays celebrated around this time of year -- Hanukkah and Christmas.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is celebrated by Jewish families throughout the world on eight days between the 25 Kislev to the 2 Tevet, according to the Hebrew calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, that falls somewhere between late November and late December. Hanukkah is a commemoration of the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt from Syrian rule. The word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration."

At the heart of Hanukkah is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum. During the rededication of the temple, there was only a small supply of oil, about enough to light the menorah for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days until more oil could be obtained. Jewish families remember this miracle by lighting a Hanukkah menorah, also known as a hanukiah or chanukkiayah. The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches, one to represent each of the eight days of Hanukkah plus a ninth, which is known as the shamesh and is used to light the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah the shemmesh is used to light one candle, on the second two, and so on, until the final night when all eight candles are lit. It is due to this tradition that Hanukkah is also sometimes known as the Festival of Lights.

Jews also commemorate the miracle of the temple menorah by eating fried foods during Hanukkah. The oil used to cook the food is a symbol of the oil used to light the menorah. Traditional foods include latkes (or potato pancakes), and sufganiyah (or jelly/custard filled doughnuts).

Another Hanukkah custom involves the dreidel, a four-sided top that children spin as part of a game. A Hebrew letter is written on each of the four sides of a dreidel: shin, hey, gimel, and nun. The four letters are an acronym for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "a great miracle happened there." Historically, the dreidel was used by Jews during times when they were forbidden to practice their religion by a governing power. They would gather with the outward intention of playing the dreidel, but would in fact use the time to pray and study the Torah.

In Canada and the United States, some Jewish families display a Hanukkah bush, a bush or tree that may be decorated or left bare. There is some disagreement between Jewish sects whether a Hanukkah tree, in its menorah-like shape, is an appropriate Hanukkah tradition or whether it is an attempt to adopt the Christian tradition of having a Christmas tree. Russian Jews actually do put up Christmas trees, but as part of Novi God, which is a secular Russian holiday. While Novi God has some elements in common with Christmas, such as the trees and a visit from Ded Moroz (similar to Santa Claus), it is a celebration of the New Year and has no religious connotation. Russian Jews living in other parts of the world, including Israel and the United States, often continue to celebrate the New Year with these traditions.

Christmas

Christmas is a religious holdiay and is celebrated by Christians throughout the world; although traditions often vary widely from one country to another. The specific traditions a Christian family uses to celebrate Christmas may reflect the culture from which their ancestors came.

For some Christians in the Eastern world, the Christmas season begins as early as November 15 with the Nativity Fast. This 40 day fast leading up to Christmas Eve is a time of penance and rejoicing in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ who is the Savior of all mankind. In the Western world, many Christians observe the Advent, which is similar to the Nativity Fast, although there are some differences in length and customs. The Advent begins on the Sunday closest to November 30 and lasts four weeks. Both the Nativity Fast and Advent end on Christmas Eve.

One Advent tradition you may be familiar with is the Advent calendar, which helps children keep track of the days until Christmas Eve. This tradition started in Germany and was first observed by methods such as marking off the days on a chalk line, by lighting a candle each night, or by hanging up a small religious picture each day. Generally, the Advent calendar marks the time period from December 1st to 24th. You'll see a wide variety of modern day Advent calendars, but the most popular is probably the kind with small doors that are opened each day to reveal a piece of candy or chocolate.

In one Mexican tradition, the time period leading up to Christmas Eve is commemorated with the celebration of Las Posadas ("the inns"). This tradition lasts nine nights between December 16th and 24th and consists of a reenactment of Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. On each night, a group of children and adults travel from house to house, requesting lodging. There are different forms of Las Posadas. In some, the group may be denied shelter at two homes each night and allowed into a third. Or the group may only visit one house each night and be denied until the final night, Christmas Eve, when they will be welcomed in. In either case, after the group has been allowed inside a home, there is generally a religious ceremony followed by a Christmas party.

Along with the ending of Advent and Los Posadas, many other traditions are kept on Christmas Eve. In some Scandinavian countries, it is believed that deceased ancestors visit their relatives on this night. Families prepare for these visits by tidying up, building up the fire, and putting out some food. The seats of chairs are carefully dusted before the family goes to bed so that in the morning they'll be able to tell whether they've had any visitors. A dusty seat is a sure sign that an ancestor has been to call. (Wouldn't it be nice if they'd stay long enough to answer some questions about the family tree?)

Some of the most prominent Christmas traditions center around Santa Claus. Many cultures throughout the world have a Santa figure, although his name and precise role vary significantly from country to country. The origins of his legend are based on St. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra (part of modern day Turkey) during the 4th century. In some areas of the world, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany, he is still depicted as a bishop dressed in canonical robes. As I mentioned briefly above, Russian children are visited on New Years by Ded Moroz, literally "Grandfather Frost." Unlike Santa Claus, Ded Moroz is often accompanied by his helper and granddaughter, Snegurochka, the "Snow Maiden."

While the Santa figure may go under various names, he is always a gift giver. In Belgium, children are visited by St. Nicholas twice. The first time on December 4, when he checks up to make sure they have been behaving themselves. When he returns on December 6, which is his feast day, he brings gifts for good little boys and girls and switches for those who have been naughty. These gifts may be left in shoes or small baskets in doorways. Children leave out hay, water, and carrots for St. Nicholas' horse. His visit is connected only with the feast of St. Nicholas and is not actually considered to be part of the Christmas celebration.

In Lithuania children are visited by Father Christmas on Christmas morning and must perform a song or dance before they can receive their presents. To read more about Santa Claus in various cultures, check out this article from Wikipedia.

There are, of course, many more traditions associated with both Hanukkah and Christmas, and many more holidays that are celebrated throughout the world during these winter months. Unfortunately, I don't have room to discuss all of them here, but I hope you've enjoyed this brief exploration of some of the traditions celebrated by families at this time of the year. If you're interested in learning the origins of a tradition your family celebrates, try doing a Google search. For example, when I was growing up, my Christmas stocking always included an orange in the toe, but I had no idea why. I typed "orange in Christmas stocking" into a Google search and quickly learned that it goes back to a story about St. Nicholas leaving gold in the stockings of three sisters to provide them with a dowry. If you know where your ancestors came from, you can also try looking up the holiday traditions of that country. Learning more about your ancestor's traditions can be a wonderful way to celebrate your heritage as well as the holidays.

For more information about Hanukkah and Christmas traditions, try these sites:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2011 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Dec 4, 2009

Family Traditions - Discovering Your Heritage

For many families, the most memorable traditions are centered around holidays. Often these traditions hold special meaning because they represent a much loved and valued piece of family history. Each new generation may alter or add to existing traditions, but the roots of our holiday celebrations often date way back to our ancestors.

As genealogists, we can discover valuable clues about our ancestors by researching the roots of our holiday traditions. What a great way to celebrate our heritage -- and it may even help us learn something about our family tree. Families sometimes continue traditions even after their meaning and origins have been forgotten. Rediscovering where these traditions came from may help us to find the places from which our ancestors came.

In this article, we'll focus on two of the largest holidays celebrated around this time of year -- Hanukkah and Christmas.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is celebrated by Jewish families throughout the world on eight days between the 25 Kislev to the 2 Tevet, according to the Hebrew calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, that falls somewhere between late November and late December. Hanukkah is a commemoration of the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt from Syrian rule. The word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration."

At the heart of Hanukkah is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum. During the rededication of the temple, there was only a small supply of oil, about enough to light the menorah for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days until more oil could be obtained. Jewish families remember this miracle by lighting a Hanukkah menorah, also known as a hanukiah or chanukkiayah. The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches, one to represent each of the eight days of Hanukkah plus a ninth, which is known as the shamesh and is used to light the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah the shemmesh is used to light one candle, on the second two, and so on, until the final night when all eight candles are lit. It is due to this tradition that Hanukkah is also sometimes known as the Festival of Lights.

Jews also commemorate the miracle of the temple menorah by eating fried foods during Hanukkah. The oil used to cook the food is a symbol of the oil used to light the menorah. Traditional foods include latkes (or potato pancakes), and sufganiyah (or jelly/custard filled doughnuts).

Another Hanukkah custom involves the dreidel, a four-sided top that children spin as part of a game. A Hebrew letter is written on each of the four sides of a dreidel: shin, hey, gimel, and nun. The four letters are an acronym for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "a great miracle happened there." Historically, the dreidel was used by Jews during times when they were forbidden to practice their religion by a governing power. They would gather with the outward intention of playing the dreidel, but would in fact use the time to pray and study the Torah.

In Canada and the United States, some Jewish families display a Hanukkah bush, a bush or tree that may be decorated or left bare. There is some disagreement between Jewish sects whether a Hanukkah tree, in its menorah-like shape, is an appropriate Hanukkah tradition or whether it is an attempt to adopt the Christian tradition of having a Christmas tree. Russian Jews actually do put up Christmas trees, but as part of Novi God, which is a secular Russian holiday. While Novi God has some elements in common with Christmas, such as the trees and a visit from Ded Moroz (similar to Santa Claus), it is a celebration of the New Year and has no religious connotation. Russian Jews living in other parts of the world, including Israel and the United States, often continue to celebrate the New Year with these traditions.

Christmas

Christmas is a religious holdiay and is celebrated by Christians throughout the world; although traditions often vary widely from one country to another. The specific traditions a Christian family uses to celebrate Christmas may reflect the culture from which their ancestors came.

For some Christians in the Eastern world, the Christmas season begins as early as November 15 with the Nativity Fast. This 40 day fast leading up to Christmas Eve is a time of penance and rejoicing in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ who is the Savior of all mankind. In the Western world, many Christians observe the Advent, which is similar to the Nativity Fast, although there are some differences in length and customs. The Advent begins on the Sunday closest to November 30 and lasts four weeks. Both the Nativity Fast and Advent end on Christmas Eve.

One Advent tradition you may be familiar with is the Advent calendar, which helps children keep track of the days until Christmas Eve. This tradition started in Germany and was first observed by methods such as marking off the days on a chalk line, by lighting a candle each night, or by hanging up a small religious picture each day. Generally, the Advent calendar marks the time period from December 1st to 24th. You'll see a wide variety of modern day Advent calendars, but the most popular is probably the kind with small doors that are opened each day to reveal a piece of candy or chocolate.

In one Mexican tradition, the time period leading up to Christmas Eve is commemorated with the celebration of Las Posadas ("the inns"). This tradition lasts nine nights between December 16th and 24th and consists of a reenactment of Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. On each night, a group of children and adults travel from house to house, requesting lodging. There are different forms of Las Posadas. In some, the group may be denied shelter at two homes each night and allowed into a third. Or the group may only visit one house each night and be denied until the final night, Christmas Eve, when they will be welcomed in. In either case, after the group has been allowed inside a home, there is generally a religious ceremony followed by a Christmas party.

Along with the ending of Advent and Los Posadas, many other traditions are kept on Christmas Eve. In some Scandinavian countries, it is believed that deceased ancestors visit their relatives on this night. Families prepare for these visits by tidying up, building up the fire, and putting out some food. The seats of chairs are carefully dusted before the family goes to bed so that in the morning they'll be able to tell whether they've had any visitors. A dusty seat is a sure sign that an ancestor has been to call. (Wouldn't it be nice if they'd stay long enough to answer some questions about the family tree?)

Some of the most prominent Christmas traditions center around Santa Claus. Many cultures throughout the world have a Santa figure, although his name and precise role vary significantly from country to country. The origins of his legend are based on St. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra (part of modern day Turkey) during the 4th century. In some areas of the world, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany, he is still depicted as a bishop dressed in canonical robes. As I mentioned briefly above, Russian children are visited on New Years by Ded Moroz, literally "Grandfather Frost." Unlike Santa Claus, Ded Moroz is often accompanied by his helper and granddaughter, Snegurochka, the "Snow Maiden."

While the Santa figure may go under various names, he is always a gift giver. In Belgium, children are visited by St. Nicholas twice. The first time on December 4, when he checks up to make sure they have been behaving themselves. When he returns on December 6, which is his feast day, he brings gifts for good little boys and girls and switches for those who have been naughty. These gifts may be left in shoes or small baskets in doorways. Children leave out hay, water, and carrots for St. Nicholas' horse. His visit is connected only with the feast of St. Nicholas and is not actually considered to be part of the Christmas celebration.

In Lithuania children are visited by Father Christmas on Christmas morning and must perform a song or dance before they can receive their presents. To read more about Santa Claus in various cultures, check out this article from Wikipedia.

There are, of course, many more traditions associated with both Hanukkah and Christmas, and many more holidays that are celebrated throughout the world during these winter months. Unfortunately, I don't have room to discuss all of them here, but I hope you've enjoyed this brief exploration of some of the traditions celebrated by families at this time of the year. If you're interested in learning the origins of a tradition your family celebrates, try doing a Google search. For example, when I was growing up, my Christmas stocking always included an orange in the toe, but I had no idea why. I typed "orange in Christmas stocking" into a Google search and quickly learned that it goes back to a story about St. Nicholas leaving gold in the stockings of three sisters to provide them with a dowry. If you know where your ancestors came from, you can also try looking up the holiday traditions of that country. Learning more about your ancestor's traditions can be a wonderful way to celebrate your heritage as well as the holidays.

For more information about Hanukkah and Christmas traditions, try these sites:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2011 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Dec 4, 2009

Family Traditions - Discovering Your Heritage

For many families, the most memorable traditions are centered around holidays. Often these traditions hold special meaning because they represent a much loved and valued piece of family history. Each new generation may alter or add to existing traditions, but the roots of our holiday celebrations often date way back to our ancestors.

As genealogists, we can discover valuable clues about our ancestors by researching the roots of our holiday traditions. What a great way to celebrate our heritage -- and it may even help us learn something about our family tree. Families sometimes continue traditions even after their meaning and origins have been forgotten. Rediscovering where these traditions came from may help us to find the places from which our ancestors came.

In this article, we'll focus on two of the largest holidays celebrated around this time of year -- Hanukkah and Christmas.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is celebrated by Jewish families throughout the world on eight days between the 25 Kislev to the 2 Tevet, according to the Hebrew calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, that falls somewhere between late November and late December. Hanukkah is a commemoration of the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt from Syrian rule. The word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration."

At the heart of Hanukkah is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum. During the rededication of the temple, there was only a small supply of oil, about enough to light the menorah for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days until more oil could be obtained. Jewish families remember this miracle by lighting a Hanukkah menorah, also known as a hanukiah or chanukkiayah. The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches, one to represent each of the eight days of Hanukkah plus a ninth, which is known as the shamesh and is used to light the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah the shemmesh is used to light one candle, on the second two, and so on, until the final night when all eight candles are lit. It is due to this tradition that Hanukkah is also sometimes known as the Festival of Lights.

Jews also commemorate the miracle of the temple menorah by eating fried foods during Hanukkah. The oil used to cook the food is a symbol of the oil used to light the menorah. Traditional foods include latkes (or potato pancakes), and sufganiyah (or jelly/custard filled doughnuts).

Another Hanukkah custom involves the dreidel, a four-sided top that children spin as part of a game. A Hebrew letter is written on each of the four sides of a dreidel: shin, hey, gimel, and nun. The four letters are an acronym for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "a great miracle happened there." Historically, the dreidel was used by Jews during times when they were forbidden to practice their religion by a governing power. They would gather with the outward intention of playing the dreidel, but would in fact use the time to pray and study the Torah.

In Canada and the United States, some Jewish families display a Hanukkah bush, a bush or tree that may be decorated or left bare. There is some disagreement between Jewish sects whether a Hanukkah tree, in its menorah-like shape, is an appropriate Hanukkah tradition or whether it is an attempt to adopt the Christian tradition of having a Christmas tree. Russian Jews actually do put up Christmas trees, but as part of Novi God, which is a secular Russian holiday. While Novi God has some elements in common with Christmas, such as the trees and a visit from Ded Moroz (similar to Santa Claus), it is a celebration of the New Year and has no religious connotation. Russian Jews living in other parts of the world, including Israel and the United States, often continue to celebrate the New Year with these traditions.

Christmas

Christmas is a religious holdiay and is celebrated by Christians throughout the world; although traditions often vary widely from one country to another. The specific traditions a Christian family uses to celebrate Christmas may reflect the culture from which their ancestors came.

For some Christians in the Eastern world, the Christmas season begins as early as November 15 with the Nativity Fast. This 40 day fast leading up to Christmas Eve is a time of penance and rejoicing in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ who is the Savior of all mankind. In the Western world, many Christians observe the Advent, which is similar to the Nativity Fast, although there are some differences in length and customs. The Advent begins on the Sunday closest to November 30 and lasts four weeks. Both the Nativity Fast and Advent end on Christmas Eve.

One Advent tradition you may be familiar with is the Advent calendar, which helps children keep track of the days until Christmas Eve. This tradition started in Germany and was first observed by methods such as marking off the days on a chalk line, by lighting a candle each night, or by hanging up a small religious picture each day. Generally, the Advent calendar marks the time period from December 1st to 24th. You'll see a wide variety of modern day Advent calendars, but the most popular is probably the kind with small doors that are opened each day to reveal a piece of candy or chocolate.

In one Mexican tradition, the time period leading up to Christmas Eve is commemorated with the celebration of Las Posadas ("the inns"). This tradition lasts nine nights between December 16th and 24th and consists of a reenactment of Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. On each night, a group of children and adults travel from house to house, requesting lodging. There are different forms of Las Posadas. In some, the group may be denied shelter at two homes each night and allowed into a third. Or the group may only visit one house each night and be denied until the final night, Christmas Eve, when they will be welcomed in. In either case, after the group has been allowed inside a home, there is generally a religious ceremony followed by a Christmas party.

Along with the ending of Advent and Los Posadas, many other traditions are kept on Christmas Eve. In some Scandinavian countries, it is believed that deceased ancestors visit their relatives on this night. Families prepare for these visits by tidying up, building up the fire, and putting out some food. The seats of chairs are carefully dusted before the family goes to bed so that in the morning they'll be able to tell whether they've had any visitors. A dusty seat is a sure sign that an ancestor has been to call. (Wouldn't it be nice if they'd stay long enough to answer some questions about the family tree?)

Some of the most prominent Christmas traditions center around Santa Claus. Many cultures throughout the world have a Santa figure, although his name and precise role vary significantly from country to country. The origins of his legend are based on St. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra (part of modern day Turkey) during the 4th century. In some areas of the world, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany, he is still depicted as a bishop dressed in canonical robes. As I mentioned briefly above, Russian children are visited on New Years by Ded Moroz, literally "Grandfather Frost." Unlike Santa Claus, Ded Moroz is often accompanied by his helper and granddaughter, Snegurochka, the "Snow Maiden."

While the Santa figure may go under various names, he is always a gift giver. In Belgium, children are visited by St. Nicholas twice. The first time on December 4, when he checks up to make sure they have been behaving themselves. When he returns on December 6, which is his feast day, he brings gifts for good little boys and girls and switches for those who have been naughty. These gifts may be left in shoes or small baskets in doorways. Children leave out hay, water, and carrots for St. Nicholas' horse. His visit is connected only with the feast of St. Nicholas and is not actually considered to be part of the Christmas celebration.

In Lithuania children are visited by Father Christmas on Christmas morning and must perform a song or dance before they can receive their presents. To read more about Santa Claus in various cultures, check out this article from Wikipedia.

There are, of course, many more traditions associated with both Hanukkah and Christmas, and many more holidays that are celebrated throughout the world during these winter months. Unfortunately, I don't have room to discuss all of them here, but I hope you've enjoyed this brief exploration of some of the traditions celebrated by families at this time of the year. If you're interested in learning the origins of a tradition your family celebrates, try doing a Google search. For example, when I was growing up, my Christmas stocking always included an orange in the toe, but I had no idea why. I typed "orange in Christmas stocking" into a Google search and quickly learned that it goes back to a story about St. Nicholas leaving gold in the stockings of three sisters to provide them with a dowry. If you know where your ancestors came from, you can also try looking up the holiday traditions of that country. Learning more about your ancestor's traditions can be a wonderful way to celebrate your heritage as well as the holidays.

For more information about Hanukkah and Christmas traditions, try these sites:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2011 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

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