For eight evenings each December, the Holleb family of Springfield gathers joyfully around a favorite menorah, lights small candles, exchanges a gift or two, spins a tiny top called a dreidel, and sings a Hebrew blessing.

And then Aimee Holleb, 9, in a tradition of her own invention, turns a somersault while her mother, Barbara, on some nights whips up a special pancake known as potato latkes.

Hanukah, says Barabara, is a "simple, lighthearted holiday" with a very serious purpose. "To me, being Jewish is a very important component of my identity, and the only way to retain that identity is by action, by observing the traditions. Year after year you repeat these ceremonies. As an adult, they conjure up happy memories of childhood and also develop a new tradition for our own children," she says.

The Holleb family background, as with many American Jews is polyglot. Barbara, now public relations director for the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax, comes from strictly observant Conservative stock in Boston.

Her husband, Leon, is an immigrant born in French Algeria of Russian refugee parents "who lost their entire family and belief in the Holocaust, who came to America without roots or tradition, says the soft spoken federal employe.

After the couple met in college and married in 1970, Leon, who served a long stint in the Air Force, says he was "drawn back into the Jewish community" by his wife and by friendships struck up with other transient Jews as they moved from military base to military base.

Hanukah is what Barbara calls a minor holiday, commemorating the victory of outnumbered Jewish fighters called Maccabees over Syrian conquerors who defiled their synagogues and tried to ban their religion.

After the victory, Jews cleaned out the desecration and, in 167 B.C.E., rededicated their temple in Jerusalem with a tiny lamp that held only a few drops of undefiled olive oil.

And then the miracle occurred. While a messenger was sent to another city to fetch new oil, the little lamp burned not just for one, but for eight days.

Hanukah, which means dedication, is thus a celebration of religious freedom and courage, centered on the lighting of one additional candle each evening from Dec. 18 to 25.

For the Holleb children, Aimee and Jason, 12, there is also the dreidel game, spinning a small top representing an innocent toy Jewish children used to disguise their study of the Torah in ancient times when Syrian patrols approached.

The dreidel is decorated with four Hebrew letters (gimmel, nun, hay, shin), and the children -- only at this time of year -- play for chips. "If you land on gimmel, you get all the chips, and if you land on nun, you get nothing," Aimee explains.

And yes, there are also presents, for the parents as well as kids. But Barbara downplays their significance. "A lot of families overemphasize presents because they feel pressured not to deny their children what other kids get for Christmas. But that's not what it's about. It's about religious values and freedom."

For this family, there are also mom's sugar cookies shaped as dreidels and six-pointed stars, dreidels hung in the front window, a big blue dreidel dangling from the chandelier, and chocolate candy wrapped as gold coins and called Hanukah gelt.

But the real underpinning, for the Hollebs, "is the beauty and significance of tradition -- as an anchor, a source of security and strength," Barbara says.

When Jason was a toddler and Leon was off with the Air Force for a year, she recalls, "Just Jason and I, we did everything. In his high chair, we lit candles and did the kiddish [blessing] over wine. I lived from holiday to holiday till the year was gone."

Especially in suburbs like Northern Virginia, where the estimated 35,000 Jews are generally young and widely dispersed, Barbara Holleb believes the holiday must be centered in the home, and around the children.

"I feel closer to my Judaism at home," she says, adding that the family attends services only sporadically. "And you have to start with early childhood. The kids have to taste it and smell it and feel it."

The Hollebs agree, unanimously, that they're not missing out by not celebrating Christmas.

"Christmas eve, very often, we'll go around and look at the lights and listen to the music. We enjoy that esthetically, but we don't believe in it," says Barbara. "Judaism is rich enough that we don't feel we're depriving our kids of anything."

Jason and Aimee, who attend Hebrew school three days a week, vow to continue the Hanukah tradition when they grow up and raise children of their own.

"But it'll probably be different," says Aimee wistfully. "They may computerize it."