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Take time to learn about other holiday traditions

This year marks a rare occurrence - the first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas day.

There's no better time for people who celebrate each holiday to explore the traditions and customs that make up the other. If you don't know what Kwanzaa means or why Jewish children spin the dreidel, here's a perfect opportunity to learn.

Take a cue from one interfaith family who has successfully merged their favorite aspects of Christmas and Hanukkah into a sort of holiday stew. Ron Gompertz, a Jew from New York, and his wife Michelle, a Christian from Indiana, actually started a successful Web site, Chrismukkah.com, based on the idea of combining holiday traditions.

The site started as a gathering place for other interfaith families to share decorating and recipe ideas. For the Gompertzes, the holiday season is primarily a time to celebrate family and friends, togetherness and peace on Earth, regardless of religious leanings.

In fact, the couple has studied several different religions, knowledge they hope to pass on to their young daughter.

"There's a whole big world out there, and people celebrate in different ways," Michelle said. "We find ways to combine elements of each holiday or make it about the world."

Near the holidays, they try to share their favorite traditions from both holidays with their daughter. They decorate a fir tree with blue and white lights and Jewish-themed ornaments. A wreath on the door has dreidels and holly instead of red ribbon. They created a menorah that lights up with Christmas lights.

This year, they wrote a cookbook, "Chrismukkah: the Merry Mish-Mash Holiday Cookbook," available on Chrismukkah.com. With recipes such as Gefilte Goose, Kris Kringle Kugel and Bah Humburgers, the book could be the perfect way to widen your horizons this holiday season.

"It's about food, and getting together with families, and music," Ron said.

"There's a warm feeling you get from that. That's what I like to celebrate," Michelle added.

Hanukkah

quick facts

•Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration that begins on the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev, which usually falls during the month of December. This year, the first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Day, and the celebration will run through sundown Jan. 2.

•Hanukkah, which is also commonly spelled Chanukah, commemorates an event 23 centuries ago, when the Jewish people rededicated a temple that had become a shrine to a Greek god, marking the survival of Judaism.

•Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights, referring to a miracle that occurred during the rededication. When the Jews tried to relight the menorah, they found only enough oil to last one day, yet miraculously, the oil burned for eight days - the length of time required to purify new oil.

•During the eight days of Hanukkah, a candle is lit each night to commemmorate the miracle of the oil. Nine candles are arranged in a candelabra called a menorah - one for each night, plus a candle used to light the others. It is customary to eat fried foods, such as latkes, on Hanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday.

•Families gather at nightfall to relight the menorah flames, rededicate themselves to their faith, and share in festive meals. Each night may feature songs or readings, games and gifts ranging from money to candy to other small presents.

•One tradition, especially for children, is playing the dreidel game with spinning tops. On each of the four sides of the dreidel, there is one of four Hebrew letters that stand for "Great Miracle Happened There."

Source: Hallmark

Kwanzaa quick facts

•Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday celebrated each year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

•The holiday actually has no religious or political associations, and it's not meant as a substitute for Christmas. A California State University professor created Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits of the harvest" in Swahili, in 1966 as a non-religious holiday to strengthen the bonds of cultural identity among people of African descent. It's a time to focus on and celebrate black culture and traditions. It's celebrated annually by an estimated 18 million people of African descent throughout the United States, Canada, England and the Caribbean.

•Kwanzaa is typically a family affair celebrated through several days of rituals, poetry, dancing, singing, music and feasting. A greeting often exchanged during Kwanzaa is "Harambee!" a Swahili expression meaning "Let's all pull together."

•The celebration centers on seven guiding principles, called Nguzo Saba - unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

•Seven basic symbols, signifying black heritage, are arranged at the center of the gathering place: a straw mat, seven candles, a seven-branched candleholder, fresh fruits and vegetables, ears of corn, a communal unity cup and symbolic handmade gifts.

•A major ritual is lighting a candle each night to symbolize each of the seven principles. Three red candles represent blood, three green candles represent hope and the continent of Africa and one black candle represents race and unity.

•A lavish feast called Karamu, which draws from Caribbean and African cuisine, is enjoyed on Dec. 31.

Source: Hallmark