Many Cultures, Many Celebrations

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By Steve Zalusky

For 40 years, the Aurora (Illinois) Public Library has been celebrating the holiday season in a way that incorporates all cultures and faiths.  It is an example of how libraries offer more than just books. They provide spaces for community interaction.

And what better time to engage the community than the holiday season?  At Aurora, it began in 1976 with an exhibit called Christmas in Many Lands. At the time, Mary Clark Ormond was director of the library during that Bicentennial year.

The goal was to reach users who hailed from other countries or maintained strong ties to their ethnic heritage. The library asked those users if they would be interested in decorating a Christmas tree using the designs and incorporating the legends of their own culture.

The library purchased seven trees at a local Ace Hardware and deployed them around the circulation desk at the former main library on East Benton Street. It also set up a larger tree – the community tree – on the first floor and invited people to festoon it with tags bearing their names.

Forty years later, the celebration has evolved into Holiday Celebrations in Many Lands.  For this year’s 40th anniversary, the library has the trees on display during the entire month of December at the Santori Library on South River Street.

More than 25 displays and trees are located in the Dunham Atrium and on the second and third floors of the library.  As a reminder of how libraries are changing and dynamic places, holiday celebration ornaments created in the Santori library’s makerspace are available for $3 apiece at the courtesy services desk.

Christmas, of course, is amply represented, but in a way that reflects the diversity of cultures. On the third floor, the Panama tree is bedecked with straw hats, maracas, drums, gold balls and Panama flags.  Also on the third floor is a Christmas tree consisting of ornaments made by Native Americans across the continent from birchbark, clay pottery, seal fur and leather.

In the atrium, Buddhism is celebrated with a “Tree of Light” containing handmade paper ornaments such as lanterns, fans and flowers. It is topped by a pagoda, is the religious temple of the Buddhists.

The Kwanzaa display in the atrium celebrates family togetherness, the commemoration of ancestors, the growth of community and the thankfulness for life’s goodness.

The atrium also contains a Hanukkah display, appropriate since this year Hanukkah and Christmas coincide. Amy Roth, the library’s communications manager, said a staff member brought in a menorah, while the local temple is involved in the decoration.

The atrium also offers a Diwali display, the latter decorated with two lighted brass lamps and four diyas (candles), symbolizing the need for light to create a good spirit.  The Diwali display has statues of Lord Ganesh and saraswati, a symbol of good luck and the Goddess of Knowledge.

Ramadan is also recognized, as is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which has as its symbol the evergreen tree, considered the “tree of life.”  The event has proven not only cross-cultural but cross-generational as well. The handmade ornaments on the France tree are the original ones created 40 years ago by Josette Smith.

Smith recently visited the library with her daughter Christel Smith Anderson and her granddaughter, Rhiannon Anderson.  Viola Moldovan, whose mother helped decorate the Romania tree 40 years ago, was at the library to decorate the Romania tree this year.

In a video commemorating the 40th anniversary, she said “My mother and her friend started the Romania tree (in 1976) and I got involved because neither one of them was able to drive, so I had to bring them down,” said Moldovan, who carried on the tradition after her mother passed away in 1997.

“Anytime that you do something twice, it becomes a tradition. Roth said, “People in this community have really embraced this. The community sees this and they say, ‘I would like to do a tree or a display that represents what I have been doing my whole life,’ coming from whatever tradition that they have. It has just grown over the years and it has been very important in the City of Aurora to keep it going. And so we have and probably in another 40 years, we will still be doing it.”

The Aurora library provides just one example of how libraries are partaking of the holiday spirit in a number of ways, featuring storytimes, movies and creative displays, with the common denominator being both fun and enlightenment.

At the Chattahoochie Valley (Georgia) Libraries, the holiday celebration is in full swing, with a traditional visit from Santa, who is visiting several branches, reading stories and dispensing gifts to children, provided they have been good.

The celebration also included a gingerbread storytime and even season-themed films, ranging from “A Christmas Story” and “A Christmas Carol” to “Happy Feet.”  Santa isn’t the only visitor during the holiday season. In the Children’s Department in the various branches, you might see “The Elf on the Shelf.” Children spotting the elf will get a sticker.

“It started here in Georgia a few years ago, said Alan Harkness, director of the libraries. “There’s this whole tradition where you buy this elf, and then that elf every night goes to see Santa to report on the child’s behavior,” he said. “It’s supposed to be an incentive for the child to behave a little bit more. Every day, the elf shows up somewhere else magically in the household, which means the parents have to remember to move it at night before they go to bed.”

At Chattahoochie, which serves a four-county region in southwestern Georgia that serves 250,000 at seven locations and includes Fort Benning in its region, there is an effort to celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Harkness said, “We just try to make sure that we’re being as inclusive as we can be with whatever is going on. We want everybody to feel welcome at the library.”