Family traditions and rituals offer people an escape from the chaos of everyday life, and a chance to remember the little things that create beautiful memories which last a lifetime. Even though some people know exactly what their beliefs are, for others it’s hard to be completely confident about what they do or do not believe in.
“A number of events occured in my life that made me search for answers in my faith,” Sarah Blink Polakow said. “But rather than feeling close to my community and faith, I felt further away.”
Growing up, Polakow was raised as a Methodist: a Protestant denomination originating in the 18th-century evengalistic movement of Charles and John Wesley, as well as George Whitefield. Polakow and her family attended church every Sunday, and she was confirmed at age 13. However, events within Polakow’s life had her wondering if she was ever truly aligned with Methodism.
“Some of my best friends in college were Jewish, and I was fortunate enough to learn quite a bit about their traditions and beliefs; something felt familiar,” Polakow said.
As Polakow transitioned out of college, her close friends introduced her to Judaism and taught her about their traditions and rituals, where she instantly felt a connection.
“When I was dating my husband, his family included me in all their family traditions, including attending holiday services,” Polakow said. “I knew I wanted to incorporate Judaism into my personal life.”
Polakow had finally found what she was looking for: a faith that she felt she belonged. Now, Polakow and her husband celebrate Hanukkah by incorporating traditions into the chaos of their daily lives.
“Our traditions include opening small presents each night, lighting the menorah and singing prayers,” Polakow said.
During the holiday season, Polakow and her family are able to follow the traditions and rituals that are special to them, and they always make time to reconnect with each other.
“It is a good reminder for all of us to take time out from all the chaos and schedules and remember how important family is,” Polakow said.
Family plays a big role in Polakow’s life; now that she is married, she’s able to learn about new traditions from her husband’s family. Along the way, they also get to celebrate new traditions that are special to their relationship.
“Recently, we have added a new tradition, which is an apple stuffed star challah,” Polakow said. “We make extra apple star challah and take them to our Jewish neighbors to wish them a sweet new year.”
These traditions have allowed Polakow to experiment with new food recipes and share them with the people whom she cares about. Polakow’s conversion to Judaism has added many new and wonderful aspects to her personal and family life.
“Our family has a very wide spectrum of observance and personal connection to religion,” Polakow said. “But it’s the tradition of sharing meals, lighting candles and celebrating holidays, such as Passover and Hanukkah, that brings all of us together multiple times a year and keeps us connected.”
Through the holidays, traditions are not only developed with family, but they are also followed within many religious communities.
“We celebrate Simbang Gabi; it is around Christmas time, and it translates to ‘night mass,’ which is a Filipino tradition,” freshman Ravyn Edran said. “It is a Novena; so, it is celebrated for nine days leading up to Christmas.”
After Edran and her family attend night mass, they share food and enjoy each other’s company in celebration. This holiday brings the Filipino community together as if they are all one big family.
“It’s special to the Philippines, and it brings back sentimental feelings and good memories,” Edran said. “I think the music is one of my favorite parts because it’s different, but it is really happy and lively.”
The church that Edran and her family attend has a live Filippino choir that sings traditional songs to the churchgoers. Although Edran and her family cannot make it all the way to the Philippines to be with their extended family, they make an effort to bring the Filippino traditions and celebrations to their home and community. Along with the special event of Simbang Gabi, Edran makes bunso, a type of Filipino bread, and lumpia, Filipino egg rolls, with her parents who learned to make these dishes from their own parents while growing up in the Philippines.
“I want to continue to do this with my family because it is very heartwarming, and it kind of feels like extended family because the community is so friendly and happy,” Edran said.
Edran hopes to continue these traditions when she starts a family of her own because of how special the celebration is to her and her family. Some people are known to only celebrate one cultural tradition, but it is also common for a family to follow multiple religions and celebrate more than one holiday.
“On my mom’s side, we celebrate Christmas, and I have done that ever since I was little,” sophomore Madelyn Welbel said. “But at my dad’s house, we celebrate Hanukkah.”
Although Welbel celebrates Hanukkah with her dad now, she still celebrates some of her old traditions that she made when she was young and celebrated Christmas with both of her parents.
“When I was little, I used to wear the yamakas, and it’s a fun memory that I have,” Welbel said. “I used to teach at my elementary school when I was in fourth grade, and I would teach little kids about it.”
Welbel had the opportunity to teach younger kids about her religion and what she celebrates. She told stories from her own family’s traditions to younger kids, so they would be able to learn about a religion different from their own.
“They loved it because most people celebrate Christmas, so it’s new for them, and it’s fun to hear all of the different stories,” Welbel said.
Since it is common for the majority of people to celebrate the traditions of Christmas, most of the kids were exposed to new traditions from a different religion. Welbel shares a tradition with her family in which they spend time opening gifts, playing games and enjoying each other’s humor.
“It is important to show them that there are differences,” Welbel said. “I come from a very special family, so I think it is definitely important for them to learn about Christmas and Hanukkah.”
The importance of one knowing and accepting differences and backgrounds of other people truly shows the importance of community. The holidays are not just about the physical gifts one receives; the holidays are about receiving the gift of family and that is what makes the holidays so special.
This story was originally published on Sequoit Media on December 17, 2018.