Christmas dinner with the Hiebers always included cake. Birthday cake.
Each year Fred and Louise Hieber and Ray and Linda Rasznewski, Louise's brother and sister-in-law, would pick up a birthday cake from Almira's Bakery in Hammond and watch their children, Holly Hieber and Eric Rasznewski, argue over who would get to blow out the candles.
"We wanted them to know the real meaning of Christmas. It's not just Santa Claus and presents and stuff. It's Jesus' birthday,” said Louise Hieber, of Schererville.
Linda Rasznewski said the tradition held on through the years.
"It wasn't Christmas until we sang 'Happy Birthday, Jesus,'” she said. “And we did that every year, even after they got older."
There still was cake this Christmas, and traditional Polish cooking. They still broke the oplatek Christmas wafers, another Polish tradition.
Louise brought down the little tree Holly kept in her room, complete with a baby Jesus that Fred Hieber had blessed last Christmas.
But there were fewer people this year carrying on the traditions Fred and Holly Hieber loved so much.
Holly Hieber was fatally shot July 10, 2011, in Chicago. She was 26 years old.
In November, a Chicago judge found Osvaldo Salazar, 19, guilty of involuntary manslaughter, unlawful use of a weapon and concealment of a homicide in Holly's death. The same judge sentenced Salazar to four years in prison earlier this month.
Possible sentences ran from probation to five years. Holly's uncle Ray Rasznewski said four years seemed just, “with the guidelines the judge had to work with.”
On the way to a Chicago hospital to see Holly the night she was shot, Fred Hieber suffered a heart attack. He later said his daughter came to him in a vision as he lay unconscious in a separate hospital in Indiana. His daughter said he couldn't come with her, he would later recount. Holly told him it wasn't his time. It was hers.
Fred Hieber died in May following another heart attack.
“Christmas is just nothing to me now,” Louise Hieber said.
The sky lanterns
Nov. 10 would have been Holly's 28th birthday. The family marked the day by lighting sky lanterns, tiny paper hot-air balloons that float off to the heavens after a candle is lit underneath.
Originally, Louise Hieber was going to light a few off with her brother and sister-in-law, but soon word spread.
"It's not that we told them,” she said. “We said what we were doing and they said, 'Oh, I want to do that.'"
At the same moment on Holly's birthday that Louise lit off hers in Schererville, friends and family of Holly lit off sky lanterns in Munster, Hobart and around the country. Her half-brother, Fred Hieber Jr., lit off one from Las Vegas. Her cousin Eric, the one she used to fight with over who got to blow out the candles on Jesus' birthday cake, lit one off from San Diego. A childhood friend lit one off from Puerto Rico.
"My daughter was loved by a lot of people. It's touching,” Louise said before choking up, unable to speak for a moment.
They timed the lanterns to all go off at the same moment, regardless of time zone.
"We wanted a coordinated effort,” Linda Rasznewski said. “We wanted to send a message that everybody all together as a unified group was thinking about her, remembering her and honoring her. We wanted to do something together, but we're all miles apart."
Breaking the oplatek
A Polish oplatek is a large, rectangular wafer made of the same material as a Catholic Communion Host, but not consecrated by a priest.
“We each break a piece off from each other and make our wishes for them,” Ray Rasznewski said.
Wishes can be for a good year, good health or anything else.
"You wish that person whatever you want to wish them,” Louise Hieber said.
Although Linda Rasznewski said it would be rough, the three at Christmas this year planned to continue the tradition, breaking bread and giving each other the blessings they could.