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TEENS GLORY IN HOLIDAY TRADITIONS

When you think about the holidays, what's the first thing that pops into your mind? Presents? Time off from school? Special holiday foods?

Most kids think about all these things. But there is another big one during the holiday season: spending time with family. Most people spend a large amount of their holiday vacation time with their immediate families or visiting with out-of-town relatives.

For some people, this family time is a joyous event, a chance to catch up with relatives they don't see very often or a time to reconnect with family they see every day. For others, especially teens, this extra time is an excruciating journey into the Land of Irritating/Unanswerable Questions, such as "So where are you going to college?" ("How is school?" and "Got a boyfriend/girlfriend yet?" are close runners-up.) For the adults, there's always "When are you going to get married?" and "When are you going to have a baby?"

But as many bad memories as we might generate during this season, most of us have some good ones to look back on, too.

When my mom was growing up, her family always had a big Christmas tree and a manger scene in place at Christmastime. On Christmas morning, Mom and her eight brothers and sisters would come downstairs and gather around to place the baby Jesus in the manger. My dad, who grew up in a secular Jewish household, didn't celebrate Hanukkah but his family put up a Christmas tree for their Christian housekeeper.

My brothers and I, growing up in a dual tradition household, have many different traditions. We always have a meal of brisket and potato latkes at my paternal grandparents' house in celebration of Hanukkah. We exchange gifts for Hanukkah with my dad's side of the family and Christmas gifts with my mom's side. Usually, we have a nice Christmas dinner alone before heading over to my maternal grandmother's for a massive Christmas celebration with my mom's side of the family. In addition to the traditional Christmas fare (ham, turkey and lots of desserts) we sometimes have a piece of the birthday cake a relative bakes for Jesus.

Our menorah is on the same mantel as our Christmas stockings. On Dec. 6, we leave our shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with treats. And every year, my mom buys us a special new Advent calendar and a new Christmas story for my dad to read to us (along with our Hanukkah books).

Although some people I spoke with have a tradition in their families of opening just one Christmas gift the night before, Jocelyn Moses reports "I can't touch my Christmas presents until Christmas Day." Rebecca Beerman's family waits two to three hours after the big Christmas breakfast to open presents "to build suspense." Another oft-mentioned tradition is midnight Mass; Jocelyn and her family have been known to attend sunrise service. Since her parents are divorced, Jocelyn spends half of Christmas Day with her day and half with her mom. Every year, the Moseses' tree sports a new ornament -- "something special." Jocelyn's favorite tradition? "Every year, I listen to "Rainbo Brite's Christmas" at least once!"

As far as Christmas music goes, Jamie Ivranich and Brady McCullough also have their favorites. Jamie listens to "Lambchop's Nutcracker" every year, while Brady and his family like to put a Raffi record on while they decorate the tree. In Jennifer Valentin's household, "We listen to jibaro music, which is traditional music from the mountains of Puerto Rico." According to Jennifer and Angelica Matias, parranda "are small music groups who travel from house to house and play traditional music for food."

Another tradition a lot of kids seem to share is one that Ellen Przepasniak practiced for a number of years: leaving milk and cookies out for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. The next morning, Ellen would invariably find the cookies mysteriously consumed, the milk gone, and the carrot chewed, as if by reindeer. Unfortunately, one year she also found some carrot remnants in the kitchen garbage.

Jennifer celebrates Three Kings Day on January 6. "As a child, I left water and hay by my bed on the day before Three Kings Day. The water and hay were to feed the three kings' camels. I'd always have a present in their place by morning."

One thing holiday traditions have in common is special food. At Hanukkah, which is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but is often celebrated around the same time, traditional foods include brisket and potato pancakes, or latkes. There is also Hanukkah gelt, chocolate candies wrapped in gold foil to look like coins. Children use these to play games with the dreidel.

For those who celebrate Christmas, there is ham, turkey, and, in some cases, chicken, accompanied by stuffing, a variety of side dishes, and lots of cakes and pies and cookies for dessert. In some homes, the Christmas meal is rice and beans.

According to Jennifer and Angelica, traditional Yuletide food and drink for many Hispanic families includes pernil (roast pork sandwich), pasteles (a spicy mixture of green bananas, beef and pork), rice, and "a few specially prepared drinks." Jennifer, who also has Polish heritage, remarks that "on Christmas Eve, we have a Wigilia which is a traditional Polish celebration where meat is not allowed. We celebrate our faith and our family and our Polish heritage on this day."

For Moslems, the holy month of Ramadan this year falls between Dec. 7 and Jan. 1, thus coinciding with the major Christian holiday and New Year's. According to Sabiha Ahmad, Moslems must fast during Ramadan from dawn until dusk. Special food is then prepared for breaking the fast. Says Nura Abu-Taha, "During Ramadan, families go to each other's houses for big dinners (after dusk)... there is nightly prayer at the mosque...it is a time of great family togetherness."

What else do people do besides eat together? At Rebecca Beerman's house where Jewish and Christian holidays are celebrated, the Hanukkah celebration takes a high-stakes turn. "We take bets on which candle (in the menorah) will burn down first," says Rebecca. Also, every year her father feigns a chill and asks his daughters to find him a blanket. Upon fulfilling this request, they find, in addition to a blanket, "the Great Candle."

A couple of people I spoke with report that they play a game in which the object is to find a certain ornament on the tree. Matt Long, an only child, says that his parents make him "find the pickle." They hide a small, pickle-shaped ornament in the tree and then watch Matt hunt for it. Jamie Ivranichcompetes with her brother to find a certain ornament every year.

Other kids say they receive beautiful old coins from their grandparents for Christmas. Marijke Pace's aunt weaves a tapestry with a special Christmas symbol for each of her nieces and nephews. Some kids receive their presents in hand-knitted stockings. Others get new pajamas every year on Christmas Eve.

Whatever you celebrate in the winter months, remember that the holiday break is a time for family togetherness. Many people have traditional traditions but it makes the holiday season even more special if you have a tradition that only you and your family can share.

Raina Lipsitz is a senior at City Honors High School.