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12/06/02 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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Tradition. The holidays are built on this timeless structure, filled with food and rituals that forge our link with the past and give us a sense of continuity. In these troubled and threatening times, when so much of what we experience is out of our control, it's comforting, even stabilizing to know that the ceremonies connected with holidays remain more or less the same. If we cannot control the possibility of war in Iraq, we can control what we put on the table, what songs we sing, what members of our families and friends sit around our dinner table and break bread together.

Chanukah, which celebrates the lighting of an oil lamp which miraculously lasted for eight days instead of one, commemorates the rebuilding of the Temple after its destruction in Jerusalem in 165 b.c. Like most Jewish holidays, it centers on food. The traditional latke, or potato pancake fried in oil, is served with sour cream and homemade apple sauce. One more candle is lit each night, a prayer is said, followed by a song to the tune of Rock of Ages.

This year, for the first time, Hanukah was celebrated on the day after Thanksgiving. Two holidays, back to back. My first reaction was, "Oh, all this eating." Now, I think it was wonderful. We had family gatherings and traditional foods on both days. Yes, there was a lot of food and it all followed tradition. Thanksgiving, the turkey and pumpkin pie. Chanukah, the latkes and brisket.

Holiday food is more than extra calories. It's something we share, something, which does, in its own way, bring us together. With food come conversation, stories, and laughter. Memories of past holidays and the people we shared them with rise to the surface, and make us either happy or sad. New memories are being formed by the grandchildren who someday will look back on these holidays with their own nostalgia.

As we adhere to tradition and celebrate holidays together, we create our own small, brightly lit community, which for the moment is warm and cozy, a sacred space that is separate from an uncertain world.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.
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