A live nativity scene is part of the Christmas celebration at First Free Rockford church, 2223 N. Mulford Road, Rockford.

Spiritual & Ethnic Holiday Traditions

The holiday season calls for an extra dose of tolerance, love and compassion. Learn about the various religions practiced by those in our community and experience unfamiliar traditions.

A live nativity scene is part of the Christmas celebration at First Free Rockford church, 2223 N. Mulford Road, Rockford.
A live nativity scene is part of the Christmas celebration at First Free Rockford church, 2223 N. Mulford Road, Rockford.

December’s calendar is jammed with events and activities that reflect both religious and ethnic facets of the holiday season in our region. It’s the perfect time not only to celebrate the season, but also to experience unfamiliar traditions and learn about the beliefs of others, whether that means different religions or different denominations within your own religion.
Here are a few examples.

St. Lucia Festival

Rockford’s Swedish Historical Society has been celebrating the Festival of St. Lucia for 75 years. This season’s event will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2, at First Lutheran Church, 225 S. Third St., Rockford.
The story of St. Lucia honors a young Christian girl who was martyred for her faith in 304 AD. The most common version of the story is that she secretly brought food to persecuted Christians in Rome, who were hiding in the catacombs below the city. She wore candles on her head to light her way, so that she had both hands free to carry things.
“The church will be candlelit and feature a choir of 30 children singing Christmas carols in Swedish and English,” says Karen Hammarberg, event chairperson. “The story of St. Lucia will be narrated in Swedish and English as well.”
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, the celebration will continue at Trinity Lutheran Church, 200 N. First St., with a traditional Julmarknad, a Swedish Christmas market plus fun family activities.
“At 9 a.m., the children are invited to breakfast with Tomten, Sweden’s Santa Claus,” says Hammarberg.
“Reservations are required for the breakfast, $6 per person. Vendors will offer homemade art, jewelry, Norwegian painting and more. There will be Swedish food and bakery items for sale, plus a Kaffee Stuga (coffee house). The Lucia children will sing songs from their concert, and all children will dance around the Christmas tree.”
Additionally, Swedish Historical volunteers will serve a meatball luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. No reservations are required for the meatball luncheon; cost is $9 for the meal. Call Karen at (815) 966-1218 for the breakfast with Tomten and (815) 399-3737 for information on the Julmarknad.

Live Nativity at First Free

Christmas traditions are the focus of this year’s celebration at First Free Rockford. Director of Classic Worship Renee Cooper encourages the public to join the fun from 4 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, at the church campus, 2233 N. Mulford Road.
“Outdoors, visitors can take a walking tour to view a live nativity with Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and wise men, plus a camel, donkey and sheep,” Cooper says. “Inside, everyone can decorate Christmas cookies, watch a puppet show, join a snowball fight in the gym, and get a free picture taken with Santa. Some of Santa’s reindeer will be here, as well. Each family will receive a free Christmas book that was written and illustrated especially for this event.” Local vendors will sell food.
“We have lots of fun, family-oriented activities for all ages,” Cooper adds. “Plus, everyone is welcome to join us for our Christmas weekend worship services, at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 10 a.m. on Christmas Day. The services will be identical.”

Hanukkah: Dec. 24-Jan. 1, 2017

Hanukkah (sometimes transliterated Chanukkah) is a Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and nights. It starts on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, which coincides with late November through late December on the secular calendar.
In Hebrew, the word “Hanukkah” means “dedication.” The name reminds participants that this holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E. The holiday is celebrated with the lighting of candles on a menorah to commemorate the rededication, as well as special foods, games and family gatherings. This year’s observance begins Dec. 24 and ends on New Year’s Day. For information on events open to the public, call Chabad Community Center in Rockford at (815) 596-0032 and Temple Beth-El at (815) 398-5020, or Congregation B’Nai Abraham at (608) 364-4916, in Beloit.

Christmas Events at Rockford First

Rockford First invites the public to celebrate Christmas at its church campus, 5950 Spring Creek Road. Creative director Lisa Seaton says both children and adults will enjoy an unforgettable Christmas experience.
During a 60-minute service, they’ll hear an inspiring message from Senior Pastor Jeremy DeWeerdt.
“The Christmas story will come to life through special music, videos, creative elements and classic carols,” Seaton says. “The kids will enjoy special Christmas activities, have the opportunity to meet the characters from ‘Frozen,’ enjoy special photo ops, and there’ll be free hot chocolate for the entire family. This truly is the season of Celebration, as God sent His son, Jesus, bringing Hope for us all.”
Admission is free and everyone is welcome to join Rockford First on Christmas for any one of the six identical services happening at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22, at 5 and 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 23, and at 2, 3:30 and 5 p.m. on Dec. 24.

Kwanzaa at Ethnic Heritage Museum

In this season of darkness, light is an essential element in every December holiday celebration, and Kwanzaa is no exception.
Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community and culture. It’s observed from Dec. 26th through Jan. 1st each year and its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language.
First-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia. Kwanzaa involves the use of candles, colorfully patterned clothing and special foods, to build on the five fundamental activities of Continental African “first fruit” celebrations: ingathering, reverence, commemoration,  recommitment and celebration. Each value is honored daily, with the culmination of the celebration held on New Year’s Day with feasting and fellowship.
Learn more about Kwanzaa at the Ethnic Heritage Museum, 1129 S. Main St., Rockford, during a special event, “Christmas from Slavery to Kwanzaa,” on Sunday, Dec. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.
See a decorated African American Christmas tree, Santa Christmas decorations, and learn about the history of Kwanzaa. Enjoy ethnic music and fine entertainment hosted by Dorothy Paige Turner and the African American Gallery of the Ethnic Heritage Museum. Learn more by calling (815) 962-7402.

‘A Heartland Christmas’

Heartland Community Church welcomes the public to its popular “A Heartland Christmas” for the 17th season. The celebration began with a special Christmas Eve worship experience in 1999 and has expanded over the years.
Each year, the title is the same, but the storyline and music are different. More than 10,000 people attend one of seven hour-long services. There’s special programming for preschoolers and early elementary age kids in Launch Kids@Heartland, plus child care for infants and toddlers.
This year, A Heartland Christmas is at 5:30 and 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22 and Friday, Dec. 23. Christmas Eve experiences begin at 12 noon, 2 and 4 p.m., at Heartland Community Church, 1280 S. Alpine Road, in the Heartland Mall. No tickets are needed. Check the website for updates at heartland.cc.
Family togetherness and fun activities are just part of December’s charm. It offers an opportunity to learn more about the spiritual and ethnic diversity that makes our region’s heritage both rich and meaningful.