A Time for Tradition

December is a month full of holidays, and part of what makes celebrating those holidays so special is reconnecting with the past through traditions. Whether it’s a favorite holiday meal, a religious belief or gathering or simply taking part in a festive celebration year after year, it’s the tie to the past that inspires holiday joy and hope for years to come. This is a look at some old and new traditions that people in the Centre Region look forward to sharing with their families and community year after year.

Lots of Lights

From Thanksgiving night until New Year’s Eve, Eric Stoner lights up a portion of the block on Harvest Run Road in State College with a holiday display that exterior illuminators alike would appreciate. For the past five years, Stoner, his wife, Karen, and their children, Elizabeth and Emma, have taken part in what has become a special holiday tradition not only for them but also for the entire State College community.

Stoner, the owner of Nittany Entertainment, spent his college years at Penn State as a DJ and has always aimed to put smiles on peoples’ faces.
“I’ve always liked making people happy, entertaining them and telling jokes,” says Stoner, whose company also does lighting design for events on campus.

When it came time to decorate his own house for the holidays, Stoner always looked to up his game, admitting to going a little overboard one year while his wife was out of town for the weekend. It was that burst of inspiration that sparked what has now become an all-hands-on-deck effort by the family. From stringing lights on the house and putting up displays in the yard to music selection and light sequencing, every member of the family gets involved in putting together their annual holiday display.

“My wife and I started this for our kids, but it grew from there,” Stoner says. “People will drive from hours away to see it. That’s what the holidays are about; it’s all about the traditions.”

Technically speaking, a lot goes into the light display. Stoner says it involves quite a bit of computer programming to ensure the sequencing is done properly. He has also built control boards as a means of communicating with the lights. To keep up with the latest technology and trends, Stoner has joined online lighting groups that meet in person a few times a year across the region in New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh area.

“It’s a good way to learn new techniques,” says Stoner. “It’s the beauty of the internet and Facebook knowing there’s a community of others out there like me. My wife and kids sometimes think I’m crazy. I say, ‘some people like to fish, I like to play with lights.’”

Set-up begins in October with a Halloween display in which Stoner takes advantage of getting lights on the house and in the ground before the temperatures drop. Beginning Nov. 1, it’s a full-court press to get the display ready for the holiday season.

One aspect that has remained consistent throughout the years is the tie to charity. Each year, the Stoners encourage donations to The Jared Box Project, a nonprofit organization that provides boxes filled with toys, stuffed animals, games and notes of encouragement to children in the hospital.

“It adds to the spirit of the season,” says Stoner, who ties it all back to his original intent of making people happy. “I hear from people on Facebook all the time about how much they look forward to it every year. That’s what makes it special.”

For more information about the holiday light show, visit statecollegelights.com or Facebook.com/StateCollegeLights.

Going Back to Our Roots

Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” Occurring in December, Kwanzaa originated as an annual harvest celebration that was brought to the United States in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Today, the holiday is a celebration of community, family and culture and is a special time for the African American community to reconnect with their roots and heritage.

For Latisha Franklin, president of Penn State’s Black Graduate Student Association, the holiday presents an opportunity for reflection, growth and celebration. For the past 20 years, BGSA has hosted an annual Kwanzaa celebration in Heritage Hall in Penn State’s HUB-Robeson Center for students and community members.

Franklin, who is a biochemistry and molecular biology graduate student at Penn State, says the event gives students the chance to come together and celebrate their heritage before the semester break when everyone goes home to celebrate their traditions with their families.

“It takes us back to our roots,” says Franklin. “Whether we speak Swahili or our family is from that region doesn’t matter. It’s the idea that we have this central belief of greenery, life and coming together to feast. The energy the holiday creates is still important.”

The holiday, which traditionally takes place Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, is based upon seven principles: unity, self-determination, responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The kinara, a special candleholder used in lighting ceremonies as part of the holiday holds seven candles — three red ones on the left, three green ones on the right, with a black candle in the center — each representing one of the seven principles. In addition to candle-lighting ceremonies, a libation, or a drink, is poured out as a tribute to those who have passed.

“We use a green leaf plant and pour water on it as part of our libation ceremony,” Franklin says. “It symbolizes growth in our community and the growth we hope to experience as individuals in the coming year.”
In addition to prominent keynote speakers, Franklin says the group also sees a lot of support from the local community. She recalls in years past seeing members of local parish communities, business owners and members of local government at the event.

“It’s a learning experience,” Franklin says. “I never celebrated Kwanzaa growing up and hadn’t heard of it until I joined BGSA. I think that’s the point of our celebration. It’s a means of giving members of our organization and members of the local community new grounds to connect on. And that’s a tradition we’d like to continue.”

A Long-Time Running

First Night State College is a family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration that has taken place in downtown State College since 1994 and has become an annual tradition for many. For area runners, part of that tradition means lacing up their sneakers and taking part in the First Night 5K Resolution Run, a race started in 1997 as an addition to the daylong festivities.

Local real estate agent and avid runner Tom Cali says the idea for the race came about during a lunchtime run with Dave Eggler, a fellow member of the Nittany Valley Running Club and later, First Night 5K Resolution Run co-director. The group knew of other First Night celebrations that did a race as part of the festivities and thought it would be a welcome addition.

The race drew more than 100 participants that first year. Today, it attracts about 600-700 runners of all ages and competitive levels. The event features awards for the top male and female runners overall and even a costume contest. The race route itself is mostly flat, weaves through the streets of campus and starts and ends on College Avenue.

“It’s a festive atmosphere, which attracts a lot of people from this area and beyond,” says Cali. “Downtown is all lit up, it’s New Year’s Eve and a lot of people look forward to getting out and running a race before they celebrate,” he says, adding that the race also serves as a kickoff for many as they look to get healthy in the new year.

For couple Rebecca Donaghue and Artie Gilkes, who are both runners and State College Area High School track and field and cross-country coaches, the First Night 5K Resolution Run has been a tradition since they moved to the area 16 years ago.

“We moved to this area because running led us here,” says Gilkes, a former Penn State track and field athlete, who explains that the couple relocated to central Pennsylvania as Donaghue’s professional running career was taking off.

Donaghue, a three-time Olympic Trials qualifier and representative of Team USA at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Cross Country Championships, has competed at both the national and international level.

Donaghue is currently the women’s record holder of the First Night 5K Resolution Run and Gilkes holds the men’s course record along with Gavin Gaynor. Both Donaghue and Gilkes coached at State High even throughout their professional careers. They believe the First Night race ranks right up there with the Olympic trials in terms of memorable and fun racing moments.

“The community aspect is a bonus,” says Donaghue, noting that a unique part of the event is having members of her cross-country team participate. “It’s the only race I’ve run with my athletes, and the year I broke the record it was so special to share that with them. It was also fun to beat out all the men,” she adds with a laugh, “except for one.”

Gilkes echoes this sentiment, saying the event brings together many in the running community to compete and have fun.

“When I got recruited to Penn State, I never thought I’d be back here coaching, married to a coach and that running would be the centerpiece of my life,” Gilkes says. “This event is somewhat of the annual culmination of all of that. My former coaches Terry Losch (owner of Rapid Transit Sports), Bill Whittaker and Harry Groves come out to support it. I get to reconnect with fellow teammates. And it’s always fun to cheer on Tom, whether he’s taking it seriously or dressed in costume. Whether we are running it or just coming out to support it, the meaning is the same.”

Connecting through Culture

Qian Zhang and her husband, John Hanold

State College resident Qian Zhang and her husband, John Hanold, find that the holidays are a time of creating warmth and building community. Zhang, who founded the State College Culture Exchange Group via Meetup, has added a new event to the group’s slate of activities: an event in December where members of the group and new friends can learn about and share holiday traditions from across faiths and around the world.

“During this time of year, it’s important to remember there are those of us out there who don’t get to be home with our families and might be looking for a way to share what makes the holidays special,” says Zhang.

Zhang, who moved to the United States from China to attend Penn State, has asked others within the group to volunteer to present their traditions. One of this year’s presenters is Emily Fogel Conway, who lives and works in State College with her husband, Dan. Fogel Conway practices Judaism and plans to share traditional food and games that are celebrated during Hanukkah, which takes place this year from sunset Dec. 22 to sunset Dec. 30.

“I’ve appreciated having the traditions of others within the group shared with me, and I’m excited to give back by sharing my traditions with them,” says Fogel Conway. “I feel like I’m giving people from this community a little taste of what it’s like to be from my background.”

Emily Fogel Conway and her husband, Dan

As part of Fogel Conway’s presentation, she plans to make potato latkes, a traditional dish of Hanukkah made with potatoes, onion and matzah or breadcrumbs. The potato latkes are fried in oil to represent the holy miracle that forms the basis of the holiday when the Second Jewish Temple was rededicated to God after being seized by the Greeks. It was thought that there was only enough holy oil to last for one day; instead, it lasted for eight. It was this miracle that began an annual commemoration of the event with the lighting of the menorah and reciting prayers of thanksgiving for eight nights.

Fogel Conway also plans to teach participants the Jewish custom of playing games with a dreidel, a spinning top with four sides, each marked with a different Hebrew letter. The letters on the dreidel are the first letters in a Hebrew phrase that points back to the great miracle that took place thousands of years ago. Each player is given an equal number of game pieces or coins, which are often chocolate coins, and each player competes to win the pot.

Members of the Culture Exchange Group share a meal on Nov. 17.

“I joined this group as part of my own New Year’s resolution to make more friends,” Fogel Conway says. “It’s cool to be part of a group that embraces each other’s differences and has taught me so much about various traditions.”

“If we can provide some warmth to others and a place for them to share something about themselves,” Zhang says, “we will have accomplished what we set out to do, which is to build a community.” •SCM

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