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Grand finale to a hand-crafted Hanukka ritual
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Grand finale to a hand-crafted Hanukka ritual

S. Orange family ends 50-year party tradition ‘on a high note’

Even before others had lit their first Hanukka candle, the Schnitzer family had celebrated a grand finale of their personal Hanukka tradition. After 50 straight years of hosting ever-larger parties for their family and friends, Thelma and her husband Herb had decided to end things “on a high note.”

On Dec. 18, some 90 people gathered at their home in South Orange, some from as far afield as California. In yet another tradition, each family departed with a blue and white needlepoint decoration made by Thelma.

“You should see our home,” said Estelle Seligman of West Caldwell, who, along with her husband and children, has been part of the Schnitzer celebration since it began in 1962. “It’s filled with all these beautiful things that Thelma has made” and given her guests as favors.

A few days before the last hurrah, for all the preparations under way, everything was in pristine order.

In the kitchen, with mountains of latkes and hundreds of pastry-wrapped hot dogs readied, and a bakery’s worth of desserts in preparation, all was tidy. Even in Thelma’s small workroom upstairs, with its shelves of albums, boxes, and files, neatness prevailed.

And, of course, everywhere one looked — from the front porch to the basement — the already handsome decor was enhanced with celebratory blue, white, and silver creations.

The party and decoration tradition began when Thelma and Herb, now in their mid-70s, were newlyweds. They had recently moved from Newark, where they both grew up, to Maplewood. Wanting to save their first-born, Marc, from the infections he’d caught in his first winter, they decided to stay home for Hanukka and have everyone come to them.

With the arrival of Heidi and then Beth, and later after they’d moved to South Orange, their ambitions grew. Thelma wanted to show her children that their own traditions could be just as much fun as the Christmas celebrations in their friends’ homes.

“There’s still not much Hanukka stuff you can buy in the stores, and in those days there was almost nothing,” she said, “so I decided to make it myself.”

A grade school teacher by training who sewed her own clothes, Thelma readily took to designing, stitching, and painting her creations. She still insists that she isn’t artistic, but the results are ingenious and charming.

“I call Thelma ‘the Jewish Martha Stewart,’” Seligman said. “And she’s actually more amazing because she does all this without assistance. It looks so wonderful, the food is delicious, and there’s the fun of seeing everyone you might not have seen all year. Their parties really can’t be duplicated.”

At this last party, guests received a gift bag with a package of cookies — homemade and decorated, of course — and a decoration. Some received a needlepoint hanging with a menora and candle; others, as in past years, might have gotten a throw pillow, or a fabric dreidel, or a doll.

Thelma has also made Christmas items for her Christian guests — perhaps a green and red sequined ball, or a tubby stuffed Santa to hang on the tree.

Design and production, Thelma said, typically begin just weeks after the previous Hanukka.

“My hands are always busy,” she said. And they still will be — though at a more leisurely pace.

Given the paucity of Hanukka decorations in the stores, and the scarcity of instructions in books and magazines that carry volumes of Christmas craft ideas, Thelma has faced a chorus of voices telling her to go commercial with her decorations, but that hasn’t lit her flame.

“I make things for my own pleasure,” she said, “and for the pleasure of seeing the response on people’s faces when they receive them.”

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