INL Holiday Traditions

December 20, 2019

By Paul Menser

As Idaho National Laboratory wraps up its 70th anniversary year, perhaps the holiday season is the time to look at what a gift the lab has been to eastern Idaho in terms of cultural diversity and rich traditions.

Since 1949, people have come to work at the lab from all parts of the United States, and even from all over the world. New people bring new customs, food, music and art, opening eyes wide and lifting spirits high.

Here are a few stories shared in the spirit of the season by INL employees.

From Poland to Idaho

When Adam Andersen came back to his native eastern Idaho in 2009 to take another job at the lab, he brought with him his Polish-born wife, Katarzyna (Kasia). Before meeting her, Andersen had been unaware of the Polish Christmas Eve celebration called Wigilia (pronounced “vi-GEE-li-a”). But in 16 years of marriage, in which they’ve become the parents of four girls and four boys, the annual celebration has offered not only a strong connection with her Polish roots and heritage, but an unforgettable shared experience.

Adam Andersen family
Adam Andersen, far right, is pictured with his family in front of their Christmas tree.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they have modified some of Wigilia’s more Catholic elements. Yet it remains a formal occasion, with symbolism, lights, candles and decorations. Dinner begins with the first star appearing in the sky. “Then we light candles for each place at the table while singing a Polish carol. We offer prayer in Polish followed by standing face-to-face with each family member to give ‘wishes’ or ‘?yczenia.’ We always set an additional place to welcome a guest, should there be a knock at the door,” he said.  Near the end of the evening, the “Angel” or “Anio?ek” brings gifts for the children.

Andersen Christmas still life
The Andersen family incorporates a traditional Polish Christmas Eve celebration called Wigilia into their annual festivities.

Foods include Barszcz z uszkami (beetroot broth with bite-sized dumplings), Zupa Grzybowa (mushroom soup), Pierogi z Kapust? i Grzybami (dumplings with sauerkraut and mushrooms), Ryba Wigilijna (Polish Christmas fish), Tort Orzechowy (nut cake), and Sernik (cheesecake). Andersen admits there are mixed opinions among the children about the favorite dish, but that “they all like dessert,” he said.

As intimate and family based as the celebration is, Kasia Andersen and her kids have done a few presentations about Wigilia and other Polish Christmas traditions at the church’s local Family History Center. “There’s definitely something about tradition that bonds the family together,” Andersen said.

Homegrown holiday

“I love Idaho Falls,” says Ashley Jeppsen of INL’s Logistics Services. “We are truly blessed to live in a great community with so many holiday activities for families. There is so much to do, from horse-drawn sleighrides downtown, to the old-fashioned Christmas traditions display at the Museum of Idaho.

Born and raised in Idaho Falls, Jeppsen said she has been to the Festival of Trees since she was little. “I’ve always loved doing the scavenger hunt, and now that I am a parent, keeping this tradition alive has become a priority to me. Each year I take the kiddos, and we take pictures in front of our favorite themed tree.”

Knowing that the Festival of Trees benefits Development Workshop makes it even more special, she said. “The Festival of Trees is an amazing way to show our love and support for special needs persons in our community and enjoy a great family tradition.”

Last of all, there are the performances each night – school choirs, dance recitals and school bands. “Entertainment, traditions, activities and charity in one place!” said Jeppsen, who took special pride this year that INL had a tree to donate and auction off.

Sweet Home Chicago

With the lab shutting down for the holiday season – “curtailment” being the official term – many INL people head home to visit loved ones in the places they grew up. For Seth Snyder of the Energy & Environment Science & Technology directorate, home means Chicago.

“Our oldest holiday tradition is to attend the annual Winter Solstice drum performance by Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang,” Snyder said.

Snyders in Chicago
Seth Snyder, bottom left, prepares to dine at a Chinese restaurant with his family on Christmas Day.

Drake and Zerang are two Chicago percussionists who started their Winter Solstice concert in 1990, in a dance studio with a view of the El tracks. Their intent was to provide a special occasion for friends who might not celebrate the season in any other way, but over 25 years it evolved into an event that transcended Drake and Zerang’s social circles and fan bases.

“It runs from 6 a.m. to sunrise on the Winter Solstice,” Snyder said. “We have been attending since the early 1990s. My adult daughters have attended the event for virtually every year of their lives. We plan our holiday breaks around attending the Solstice, and after the performance we go out for breakfast at a local Swedish restaurant.”

As for Christmas Day itself, the tradition is Chinese food then the movies. “Recently this has gotten so popular that we need to go to restaurants downtown, away from Chinatown,” he said.

Service to community

As an organization, Idaho National Laboratory celebrates the holiday season by participating in its own tradition of charitable giving. The laboratory strives to support those in need in the local community year-round, but particularly during the holiday season.

Lori Lenderink, Katelyn Morales and Angie Good sort through donations for the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

Each December, BEA presents local United Way agencies across eastern Idaho with “big checks” that reflect the lab’s commitment to helping people in need in the areas where its employees live. For decades, the lab has been a leading supporter of United Way offices, not limiting its contributions to money but also volunteers and expertise from loaned executives. Programs funded by United Way help people who may be in the position of having to decide between paying for rent, groceries or food.

These gifts are donated by INL employees for the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

After United Way check presentations, BEA campaigns become more holiday themed, specifically Christmas for Families and the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program. With Christmas for Families, BEA and Fluor Idaho employees team up to adopt needy families, providing them with gifts, necessities and food boxes. The Angel Tree program is also a BEA/Fluor Idaho employee effort. Each year, there are 250 tags from the Salvation Army for children ages 13 and younger. They are hung on trees through the lab and list each child’s requested gifts – a want and a need. The gifts are provided to the Salvation Army to bring seasonal joy to these children.

During the holidays, Team INL frequently involves teens from The Haven, an Idaho Falls emergency shelter, in its giving activities. Team INL also provides gifts and other basic needs to developmentally disadvantaged individuals in the community.

Cameron Preslar, Ben LaPorta and Patty Kriegh prepare to deliver gifts purchased by REC INL employees to make the holiday season brighter for local families.

On a less centralized basis, you will find INL employees volunteering at the Idaho Falls Soup Kitchen, the Community Food Basket, singing in the annual Christmas Cantata and playing handbells in bell choirs. Look around you and breathe in the crisp winter air. Start a tradition of your own. Maybe you already have one and don’t even know it.




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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted December 20, 2019

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