Jocelyn Hare, president of the Ethnic Heritage Museum, stands beside an Il Ceppo, an Italian Christmas pyramid at the Ethnic Heritage Museum. (Photo by Lynne Conner/Special to Rock River Current)
By Lynne Conner
Special to the Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Enjoying a hometown Christmas with an international flair is as simple as a stroll through the Ethnic Heritage Museum.

The museum’s Heritage Holidays event reflects Rockford’s diverse population while showcasing Christmas traditions from six ethnic galleries: Italian, Lithuianian, Irish, Polish, African American and Hispanic.

From the simple Irish Laden Table to the ornate Polish Szopka, Heritage Holidays captures how Christmas is celebrated in some of the countries key to Rockford’s roots.

“It’s very important to celebrate not only your own heritage but the heritage of others. These beautiful ethnic Christmas displays help us to understand how other cultures celebrate the holidays and see the similarities among Rockford’s varied population,” said Jocelyn Hare, president of the Ethnic Heritage Museum, 1129 S. Main St. “Some traditional Christmas decorations like candles, the nativity scene and ornaments are used in several of our galleries, with each ethnic group adding their own variation to these items.”

Related: Boylan Catholic High School students showcase Hispanic heritage in new art exhibit

Il Ceppo, meaning “the log”, is a prominent Christmas feature in the Italian gallery. This 4-foot high pyramid displays figurines and food that symbolize God, Earth and man.

“A pineapple is at the top of the Il Ceppo which is a sign of hospitality. The bottom level shows God’s gifts to man and is usually represented by a nativity scene,” Hare said. “Fruits and nuts grace the middle tier as a symbol of the Earth’s gifts to man and the third level displays man’s gifts to man, which could be small books or artwork.”

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The Graham-Ginestra House, which is adjacent to the Ethnic Heritage Museum, also featured an Il Ceppo in honor of Leonard and Mary Ginestra’s Italian roots. The Ginestras’ purchased the home in 1926 from its original owners, the Graham family who had built the home in 1857.  The Graham-Ginestra House was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. 

Intricately designed Christmas ornaments constructed out of paper or plastic drinking straws are a prominent part of the museum’s Lithuanian gallery. The gallery also features a handmade beeswax nativity scene and amber jewelry, which is native to the Baltic region.

Leaving a lit candle in the window to guide the Holy Family is one of the Christmas traditions shown in the Irish gallery. Christmas crackers, filled with small gifts and the Laden Table are also a part of an Irish Christmas.

“On Christmas Eve in Ireland, doors to homes would be left unlatched, and the Laden Table would be set with Irish soda bread and a pitcher of milk,” Hare said. “This is done as a sign of hospitality to the Holy Family or weary travelers.”

The hand-constructed, eye-catching szopka, the Polish version of the Nativity scene, is also on display for the Heritage Holidays event.

“This would be considered house art in Poland because the Szpoka represents many different aspects of Polish life,” Hare said. “Fun, handmade ornaments and glass tree toppers are also part of Polish Christmas tradition.  Many ornaments are made out of pine cones, which pay tribute to the forested regions of Poland,” Hare said.

“The African American gallery always changes from year to year, but this year, we have the Kwanzaa table set up which is an African American celebration of life that starts on Dec. 26 and lasts until Jan. 1,” Hare said.

Seven candles are lit during the days of Kwanzaa which represent the principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. “We also have the Black Santa exhibit up which features a life-size Santa where kids can have their picture taken,” Hare said.

Poinsettias and festive straw wreaths decorate the Hispanic gallery. In Mexican culture, legend says that a peasant girl only had weeds to offer as a gift for baby Jesus. When she brought the weeds into church, they became the crimson flowers of the poinsettia. The star shaped leaves of the poinsettia represent the Star of Bethlehem while the red color of the flowers commemorate the blood of Christ’s crucifixion.

If you go | Heritage Holidays

When: noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12 and Sunday, Dec. 19 (available weekdays by appointment)

Where: Ethnic Heritage Museum, 1129 S. Main St., Rockford

For more information: 815-962-7402;

Lynne Conner is a freelance journalist. Email for story tips. 

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