Type to search

Locals Share Their Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa Traditions


Rep. Debra Heffernan talks Hanukkah traditions./Photo by Moonloop Photography

Debra Heffernan

Delaware State Representative, District 6

If you’re trying to find your way to Rep. Debra Heffernan’s Bellefonte home during Hanukkah, just follow the scent of fresh fried potatoes.

Her husband, Pat Heffernan, is “Lord of the Latkes,” she says, and making them has been a family tradition since their three kids were little. “We were always the traveling Hanukkah show. We’d take a billion latkes to the kids’ schools.”

Their secret to the best pan-fried potato pancakes? “You have to squeeze out as much water as possible from the shredded potatoes using a food processor,” Heffernan explains. And if you end up at a Hanukkah celebration, “be prepared for your clothes to smell like latkes for days.”

For the Heffernans’ Hanukkah feast—which could occur on any of the eight nights—Pat gets put on brisket duty, too. “His brisket is so delicious and takes a good week to make, including to marinate, then go in the oven overnight, refrigerate and slice and then eat the next day,” Deb says. And, of course, there’s challah bread, which the Heffernans like to get from Bread and Buttercream, a bakery in the 6th District. “I think there’s a misconception that Hanukkah is like eight days of Christmas, with all the decorations and fancy dinners,” she says. “It’s not like that. It’s much lower key.”

Still, it’s nostalgic for the family. “One of the menorahs we light is mine from when I was little,” Heffernan says. “It’s not fancy, but it’s sentimental. We also like to play this game where we light the candles—everyone has to pick the candle they think will last the longest.” There’s no prize, she says, laughing. “You just get to say you won.”

The family’s favorite tradition, though, might not sit well with purists. “We have this thing that’s spread from our house to my sister’s and my mom’s,” she says. “It gets kind of crazy around the holiday season, so if there’s a lot going on one night, we’ll make a decision to ‘bank’ a night of Hanukkah, and then cash it in another time. We’ll even relight the candle for the night that we paused. Then it’s a nice family surprise for later, kind of like when we find a batch of latkes we stashed in the freezer.” Heffernan pauses and adds: “Maybe we shouldn’t tell this to my rabbi.”

Delaware Kwanzaa Committee founder Kamau Ngom first celebrated the holiday in 1968./Moonloop Photography

Kamau Ngom

Founder, Delaware Kwanzaa Committee

In the late ’60s, Kamau Ngom was struggling with his identity as a black man in America and his African heritage.

Not only was he reeling from the social upheaval after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, he says, but the concept of Africa was confusing to him. “Africa then was seen as something bad.”

In 1966, however, a celebration had been born that eventually helped him reframe everything. “Kwanzaa, which only just celebrated its 50th anniversary, embraced and was rooted in Africa, with traditional prayer, idols and paraphernalia,” Ngom says. “This was a remarkable revelation to me.”

Ngom first celebrated the holiday in 1968. “I was one of very few people in the state celebrating it,” he recalls. “By 1970 it was bigger, and it kept getting bigger.”

Thrilled by the momentum the holiday was building and the enthusiasm behind it, Ngom founded the Delaware Kwanzaa Committee, which each year throws the Community Kwanzaa Feast. “The concept of Kwanzaa stems from harvest seasons in Africa, in which the village would come together and bring whatever they had to bring—yams, goats,” Ngom explains. “We treat this the same way—community members bring what they can, and if they can’t, that’s OK.”

Kwanzaa is based on seven guiding principles: umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). These principles inspire one of Ngom’s favorite parts of the celebration: “Sitting around a dinner table with family and actually having a conversation,” he says. As the Kwanzaa ambassador in Wilmington, Ngom joins many of his neighbors at their tables during the weeklong celebration. “On the first day, we talk about unity and what [we’ve] done in the past year to promote unity in the community.”

There’s one common misconception about Kwanzaa that Ngom wants to set straight: “There is an untruth that Kwanzaa is a replacement for Christmas,” he says. “That’s just not the case. I, and many others who celebrate Kwanzaa, celebrate Christmas, too.”

The only downside of the holiday is space at the dinner table. “We host at our home,” Ngom says, “but it’s starting to be like what I experienced in the ’70s—too many people keep showing up!”

Beth Buccini decks out her Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania home for Christmas./Courtesy of Beth Buccini

Beth Buccini

Owner, Kirna Zabête boutique

Beth Buccini, a fashion editor–turned–revolutionist, opened a specialty boutique in 1999 in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood before it was the shopping destination it is today. This gave serious style-seekers a place to stop that wasn’t a department store and brought designer pieces straight to the consumer. But today, Buccini isn’t talking about fashion. Why? “Because it’s almost Halloween, which means it’s almost time for all Christmas music, all the time,” she said in October. “I can’t help it. I am so in love with Christmas.”

Her 130-acre home and dairy farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which she shares with husband Rob Buccini of Wilmington’s Buccini/Pollin Group, features a kid-friendly Christmas tree. The tree utilizes Beth’s childhood ornament collection mixed with ornaments her children have made and a “grown-up version” or professionally made ornaments, she says. “I get one very tall tree for our double-high ceilings, and usually do it up in pinks, browns and neon greens.”

Ever the host, the Virginia native does a “very Southern, traditional Thanksgiving, with a literal Virginia ham that my parents bring up,” she says. “Then we host Christmas Eve, too, and we take a real English approach [with] rib roast and popovers.”

Buccini creates a winter wonderland in her home, which calls for two annual stops: Terrain in Glen Mills and Wild Thyme in Centerville. “I load up on paperwhite amaryllis at Wild Thyme,” she says. One of her favorite Christmas traditions is outfitting the family in Wellies and fleece on Christmas Eve afternoon and heading to a popular service at an outdoor chapel in the woods near her home. “We hike up there with our neighbors, and we sing and celebrate Jesus,” she says. “It’s beautiful.”

After that, it’s a full Catholic Mass before her host duties that evening. Buccini always welcomes her family with a warm, familiar smell—a blend of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and apple cider vinegar that’s been simmering all day, a holdover from her childhood. “Rob is always yelling, ‘Turn that thing off!’” she says.

It might seem like a stretch for those who know Buccini, but she insists she and her crew spend Christmas Day in their jammies, eating cinnamon rolls and lasagna. “It’s just collapse-central at that point,” she says. “But it’s maybe the best part. I love the family time—the magic, the sparkle, the joy of Christmas, the hope and gratitude I feel just looking around me.”