ORWELL TOWNSHIP - What's your holiday tradition? A big meal with family?

Guzzling hot chocolate while you decorate the Christmas tree? Caroling? On Thursday, hundreds of students and adults at Northeast Bradford enjoyed one of their biggest and oldest traditions. Bundled in caps and jackets, they made a large circle in front of the elementary school and sang Christmas songs during the annual Hands Across Northeast fund-raiser and celebration.

"Traditions are important," elementary Principal Dr. Janice Otis told the singers during the program. "They give us a sense of who we are and where we have come from."

Hands Across Northeast began 27 years ago, she said, and was patterned after the national Hands Across America project, which raised money for the needy. Hands Across Northeast raises money, donated by students and the community, to buy groceries and gifts for less-fortunate district families at Christmas time.

This year, Hands raised more than $5,000, Otis announced, which will aid about 30 families.

Many students and staff walked over from the nearby high school to join their elementary friends for the celebration. By the time everyone was there, they stood all around the circle driveway in front of the building, several rows deep in places.

And they caroled. Though juicy green grass stretched over the lawns and playground, they sang about "Winter Wonderland," then "Deck the Halls," and later "Joy to the World," "Silent Night" and "White Christmas." Elementary music teacher Dot Weir led the singing.

They were tykes and teens and teachers. Girls in maroon varsity jackets and tall boys in senior-class sweatshirts, and smaller children in Santa hats. A little girl wearing a monkey hat, another in a hot-pink jacket. A teacher in a red coat draped with a fluffy white scarf. Together they stood under a blue sky, with gold sunshine flowing down like

a tree's tinsel.

A new tradition within the tradition continued Thursday as seniors helped kindergarten children put handmade decorations on the spruce tree in front of the school. The little children had frozen seeds, corn and other edibles in blocks of water and attached them to ribbons. As they melt, birds can eat the treats inside.

That tree, Otis pointed out, wasn't there when Hands began years ago. "Remember the values and the lessons that you have learned here," Otis encouraged the seniors. "You are always welcome to come back here to your roots."

Hands began long before those seniors were born - and maybe even some of the teachers and other adults. Today, it's starting on its second generation. ...

Lynnaya Hughes graduated from Northeast in 1997 and today teaches kindergarten at the school. She participated in Hands as a student. "I just remember being outside and it was cold!" she said later. Watching it "brings back some memories," she said. Now, her daughter Lilah is in kindergarten and seeing Hands for herself.

"We wish you a merry Christmas!" young children sang, their light voices sounding like elves. At program's end the Chipmunks sang from a recording, announcing joyful news to kids young and old: "Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus! ..."

And there goes Hands for another year. But, surely, it will be back.

Want to help?

Anyone interested may still donate to Hands Across Northeast. Send contributions to Northeast Elementary School, Panther Lane, Rome, Pa. 18837. The school can take donations any time of year. If needed, Hands funds can be used year-round to help families facing emergencies, Dr. Janice Otis explains.

Teachers will soon use Hands funds to shop for groceries and gifts. They'll hold a wrapping party in the elementary school library, complete with cookies and music, Otis notes.