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Forsyth home to array of traditions, religious celebrations
Angie with brother Nick
Angie Decker, graphic designer.

Many Forsyth County residents will celebrate Christmas today by sitting around the house with family and friends, exchanging gifts and eating a holiday meal.

While everyone has their own traditions, they might not know how their neighbors spend the holiday.

It is well-known that Forsyth County is one of the most rapidly growing areas of state and the country, and all that growth means new neighbors and new traditions for the holidays.

Forsyth County News spoke with families, places of worship and groups around the county to discuss their traditions for the holidays.

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Rev. Jeff Jackson, First Redeemer Church

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For Rev. Jeff Jackson of First Redeemer Church on Peachtree Parkway, the season is all about spreading God’s love.

“Christmas, of course, is when we celebrate when God gave Jesus to us as the greatest demonstration of love that has ever been given,” he said. “For us, it’s about giving in ways that show the love that God has already shown to us.”

Each year the church undertakes ways to help the community. This year’s was called “Give Love,” and the congregation collected more than 900 coats for needy families, purchased a truck and trailer for a local food ministry, collected hundreds of gifts for assisted living seniors and sent more than 1,000 shoeboxes full of gifts to children overseas through operation Christmas Child, where the church was a relay center collecting another 1,000 gifts.

“We really love getting beyond the walls of our church, just trying to give our community and our state and our world a taste of what the love of Christ really means,” Jackson said.

With Christmas falling on a Sunday, that also means a “very special Christmas service” for all members, along with a Christmas Eve service that the church has done for years.

“We have done for many, many years candlelight Lord’s Supper services on Christmas Eve, and they’re very special times where we remember that Jesus was born on Christmas, but he was ultimately born to die,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful, very moving service.”

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Rabbi Levi Mentz, director of Chabad of Forsyth

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Starting at sundown on Saturday, the county’s Jewish community will begin celebrating Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Rabbi Levi Mentz, director of Chabad of Forsyth, also on Peachtree Parkway, said the message of Hanukkah is to let you own light shine.

“The message of Hanukkah is really this: when you’re in a dark room all it takes is a little bit of light to push away the darkness,” Mentz said. “In our personal lives we all have moments of darkness, and on a more global level we live in a world where it seems there is so much darkness, a lot of time when we’re running around for answers we might lose sight that it’s just a little bit of light that when we shine it can push away a lot of darkness.”

Mentz said the holiday is a chance for Jewish families and the community to come together. Of course, Hanukkah has its own wealth of traditions.

“Each night of Hanukkah the family comes together once the sun goes down and it’s dark and they light their menorah,” he said. “Then families typically every night of Hanukkah will sit down and have dinner around the flames, play dreidel, the traditional Hanukkah game.

“It’s customary for parents to give Hanukkah gelt, which means Hanukkah money, where the child can chose to keep some of it for themselves and take a portion and donate it to a local charity.”

This will also be a special Hanukkah for Forsyth County, as The Collection at Forsyth, a popular outdoor mall on Peachtree Parkway, will have a menorah lighting ceremony on Monday at 6:30 p.m., which Mentz said will be the first in county history.

“What’s going to be making this year’s Hanukkah so special for those all those that live in Forsyth County is that for the first time there is going to be a public Hanukkah celebration with a public menorah lighting,” Mentz said. “At The Collection there is going to be a nine-foot menorah that is standing, and many government officials, local leaders together with the community is coming together to light the menorah.”

More information on the lighting and Hanukkah songs and blessings can be found at Jewishforsyth.org.

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Rev. Barnabas Powell, Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox Church

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With Christmas falling on a Sunday, it is likely many Christians will have an uncharacteristic Christmas service. Rev. Barnabas Powell of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox Church said his congregation won’t have that issue, since they have a service every Christmas.

“I’ll never forget, the first year after I’d become orthodox I told my mom, ‘Now Mom, we’re going to be late to Christmas dinner because we have church this morning,’” he said. “She said, ‘What, church on Christmas?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s a religious holiday.’”

Powell said the church on Bethelview Road has some traditions that other denominations might not, including a Lent for Christmas.

“Christmas for us is the second holiest holiday of the church year behind Pascha, or Easter,” he said. “In fact, we start celebrating Christmas on the 25th and before that we have 40 days of fasting that we call winter Lent or Christmas Lent that we do in preparation to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas.

“We always have wonderful pastries and wonderful cookies that are prepared during the Christmas lent to celebrate, and we’ll have special breads.”

The Greek Orthodox Church will continue celebrations up to Jan. 6, when the church celebrates Jesus’ baptism, including the Feast of St. Basil on Jan. 1. Powell said everyone should have a long celebration.

“I encourage people to take the whole 12 days to celebrate,” he said. “Don’t just take all your decorations down the next day. Leave them up and celebrate the holiday. I always tell people that if you try to celebrate the fact that God became a man and came among us in one day you’re going to hurt yourself. Take the whole 12 days.”

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Kamil Nufarov, Ahiska Turkish Community Center

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A growing community in Forsyth County is Ahiska Turks, an ethnic group from the area around the border and the country of Georgia who were dispersed in 1944 by forced deportations form the USSR.

Kamil Nufarov, president of the local Ahiska Turkish Community Center, said the community is largely Muslim and doesn’t have set traditions of holidays this time of year, but has learned to respect the traditions of the places where they have moved.

“As Ahiska Turkish community, we have been living in several different countries,” he said. “They also have holidays that might not be on our schedule, because it is a Muslim community, but with respect to the country you live in, it’s another way to kind of appreciate the country.”

Nufarov said like most of the country, this time of year is busy for visiting family members.

“In the Turkish community, we also travel. It’s also an opportunity for local communities like us to have a holiday, because as any other Americans, we work hard to make the American dream come true,” he said. “It’s a time for a break, then after this we pay attention to the New Year.”

There is one Christmas tradition that has some Turkish ties.

“I was reading about Santa Claus, and they found roots in Turkey; we have some roots together,” Nufarov said.

Of course, Santa goes by many names, including St. Nicholas. The historical St. Nicholas, who was known for his gift-giving, lived in what is now southwest Turkey when it was part of the Roman Empire.

“So as a Turkish community and having Turkish roots, we are also kind of happy that we can say, “Hey, Santa Claus is from us, it’s from our community, he’s one of us.” Nufarov said.

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District 27 state Sen. Michael Williams

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State Sen. Michael Williams represents much of Forsyth County at Georgia’s Capitol, but he and his family have a Christmas tradition that’s a little more swampy.

“I was born and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, and one thing that Mom and Dad did that I’ve continued on with my kids is that we read a book called “The Cajun Night Before Christmas,” just kind of a spin on The Night Before Christmas with a Cajun Santa Claus. Instead of having reindeer [it] has alligators and certain things like that,” Williams said.

He said his family uses Christmas Eve as a time for an early celebration.

“Starting on Christmas Eve, I think a lot of families do this, we have our traditional Christmas Eve present where each family member gets to open one present,” he said.

Williams, a Mormon, said his family also reads the story of Jesus’ birth each Christmas.

“Christmas morning we’ll typically have cinnamon rolls with green icing and red icing and before we open presents we’ll all gather together, and I read Luke: Chapter 2, which is pretty much the Christmas story to remind us all of the Christmas story and the birth of our savior.”

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Sameer Pateria, Chinmaya Mission of Alpharetta

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Though members of Chinmaya Mission of Alpharetta do not celebrate Christmas, Sameer Pateria said there are other traditions.

“This is a special time of the year,” he said. “It so happens that around the time of Christmas and New Year’s, there are several Hindu festivals that coincide.

“The spirit of giving and sharing and counting our blessings, that’s always there during this time.”

Pateria said among those festivals, which are celebrated with rituals, prayers and chants, are Vaikuntha Ekadashi and the anniversary of the Bhagavad Gita.

“Its anniversary happens to fall coincidently around this time of the year, so the members of the Chinmaya family gather around and chant gita together,” he said. “It’s just coincidental or divine will that we all celebrate in a spiritual atmosphere and celebrate the eternal values at this time of the year.”

Though members of Chinmaya Mission of Alpharetta do not celebrate Christmas, Sameer Pateria said there are other traditions.

“This is a special time of the year,” he said. “It so happens that around the time of Christmas and New Year’s, there are several Hindu festivals that coincide.

“The spirit of giving and sharing and counting our blessings, that’s always there during this time.”

Pateria said among those festivals, which are celebrated with rituals, prayers and chants, are Vaikuntha Ekadashi and the anniversary of the Bhagavad Gita.

“Its anniversary happens to fall coincidently around this time of the year, so the members of the Chinmaya family gather around and chant gita together,” he said. “It’s just coincidental or divine will that we all celebrate in a spiritual atmosphere and celebrate the eternal values at this time of the year.”