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Celebrating and preserving the heritage of American families

A diminutive blonde with a halo of quivering candles on her head answers the knock at her front door. Immediately, her mirror image appears, carrying another candlebrum of brightly burning candles.

The two usher the early morning guests into their living room, where a fire is crackling warmly. In front of the fire is a linen-covered table laden with pastries and hot drinks. Swedish folk music plays softly in the background. The morning sky outside is a shade lighter than night.

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The room quickly fills with guests talking and laughing. And then, an elegantly dressed woman glances out a window and begins a simple dance through the crowd, adding people to her dancing chain one by one. The sun breaks over the horizon.

The Ilvesaker family, third-generation Scandinavians, has celebrated the Swedish Christmastime holiday known as Lucia Day ever since daughter Nancy, who is one of a set of triplets, can remember. But the celebration differs from the one their forebears from Norway might have recognized.

''We kept parts of the original celebration, but it was really a family holiday and we wanted to share it with our friends,'' Ms. Ilvesaker comments. ''So we adjusted it by doing things like serving pastries,'' in addition to the hot drinks.

''I think it's a tradition I now would like to continue, but I want to know more about the culture it came from and how the various symbols evolved.'' She is now planning a trip to Norway with her family.

For many of the generation that went through high school and college during the tumultuous '60s and '70s, traditions have been anathema. But Amy Kotkin, a senior program assistant with the Family Folklore Project at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, says attitudes are changing, particularly as this generation matures into parenthood.

Ms. Kotkin, who helped compile a book, ''A Celebration of American Family Folklore,'' observes about this generation: ''As we worked on the book, we found that people have discarded traditions they regarded as irrelevant, but the idea of tradition has become very important.

''We found people consciously establishing new ones. And many of the radicals of the '60s are establishing strong, new traditions of their own, ones they have chosen themselves, because they are beginning to realize the importance of traditions and want new ones of their own.''

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Ms. Kotkin points out that many such people are the third generation of families that fled the horrors of wars in Europe. She continues, ''As they are growing up and becoming parents themselves, they find, although they may not want the rituals or traditions exactly as they used to be practiced, that they didn't have to throw away the whole idea of learning from another generation.''

She describes one young family who observes the Jewish Passover ceremony known as the Seder, but instead of the traditional stories, they tell the stories of their parents' escape from Russia and Germany, adding, ''They created a Seder ceremony that kept the sense of the original, but had a special meaning from their lives.''

A young couple from Denmark, he American, she Danish, find that as they have children they are beginning to think about their ancestral traditions. He was raised in the Jewish heritage, she, Lutheran. They have chosen to follow Jewish traditions and she is converting to Judaism.

Although he was a self-described radical in California during the '60s, he studied to be a rabbi in his youth. Now he is returning to the religion, ''not to the conservative part, but out of a sense of respect for the holiness and continuity of the tradition.''

Says storyteller Jay O'Callahan of Cambridge, Mass.: ''Traditions and rituals give importance to a moment, a sense of grace. They allow us to acknowledge an important moment or change in our lives.''

Commenting on the turmoil of the '60s, he notes, ''It was a period of cleansing . . . but I think people are beginning to want the stability of traditions. They just want them to have meaning.''

He reflects for a moment on such institutions as debutante balls and coming out parties.

''I used to scorn events like that. But now I can see they have their own purpose.

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