Thursday, December 28, 2006


The saying from Kenya (little by little fills the measure) remind me of the saying from Greece ("He who is not satisfied with little will not be satisfied with a lot.) Each saying speaks of the wisdom of moderation, step by step to achieve a goal, bit by bit to satisfy a need. The cautionary proverb from Russian warns us, "Better a little fire to warm us, than a great one to burn us." (Хорошего понемножку)

During 2005, we read several books set in Russia, written by Gloria Whelan, a favorite Michigan author of children's and young adult fiction. The first book offered engaging characters against the backdrop of the Revolution, the second and third followed up with more recent history. When we discovered a fourth novel earlier in 2006, we read it though we had concluded our focus on Russia. The interesting novels in this series are: Angel on the Square, The Impossible Journey, Burying the Sun, and The Turning.

We also read The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, a memoir written by Esther Hautzig, a Polish girl who spent several years of her childhood detained in Siberia with her family for the transgression of being capitalists. I was mesmerized by this novel from its elegant opening paragraph "The morning it happened - the end of my lovely world - I did not water the lilac bush outside my father's study." Throughout the novel, the author give her reader a very real sense of situation and place... of Siberia. Consider this paragraph:

"The new school was a long, wooden, barrackslike building, much larger than the village school. As far as I was concerned, the most impressive thing about this building was that it was warm. School started in September and by October we had had our first snowstorm. After more than an hour's walk through the dark village, over the windy steppe, in clothes that had never been meant for an arctic climate, the first moments inside school were always filled with the purely sensual pleasure of --thawing out. In this school, we did not have to sit all day in our coats and mittens and when it was time to go home in the afternoon, it took courage to plunge into the huge, ice-cold Siberian twilight."

Our Russia Christmas doll is modelled after Esther in The Endless Steppe, despite her being of Polish birth. Late in the story, Esther expresses a desire for a thoroughly Russian outfit: "Sapogy and a fufaika. Knee-high, shiny leather boots and a green quilted jacket. They became my obsession; the magic garments that would make me invincible on the dark journey back from exile." I didn't manage the knee-high boots, my skill as a doll costumer not having advanced that far yet, but I did make our doll a "quilted green jacket" and a fur-trimmed hat, plus a tiny Faberge egg to as an accessory to represent the fine hand-crafts of Russia.
The internet has been an invaluable resource through the past few years. I was able to find information on Russian crafts, including lacquer boxes, nesting (matrioshka) dolls and hand-knit shawls. We read folk-tales on-line such as the Firebird, Ivan Tsarevitch and the Grey Wolf, and a storyteller's favorite, The Turnip. We found a wealth of information on Russian geography, a vast subject on this largest nation in the world. We found stories of Siberian Tigers and other wildlife, struggling for survival in a changing geography.

It is an interesting exercise to think about what one's life might be in each of these nations we have considered over the years. If one considers oneself "working poor" or "middle class" or "quite fortunate" what would that lifestyle be like in India, for example, or Peru? My family and I live in a modest house in the country, in the rural north. If we lived in today's Russia, perhaps we would dwell in a quaint dachaa little country house, surrounded by gardens of fruit, vegetables and ornamentals, living near neighbors who enjoyed working in their gardens as well.
Reading our way through Russia for a year was fascinating and perhaps particularly appropriate for a nation known for some very great literature. We also enjoyed a humorous travel documentary from Globe Trekker about the St. Petersburg to Moscow region and dined well on Chicken Kiev and an incredible Barley and Mushroom Casserole at Christmas time. Christmas traditions in Russia were interrupted and interfered with during the Soviet Regime, but were sometimes carried out in secret, though several days after our own celebrations as they follow the Russian Orthodox calendar. These days, the Festival of Winter is celebrated by most and Christmas can once again be commemorated openly.

photos by Aisling and Haiku, December 2060

The Quiet Country Kitchen... Greek Style Potatoes

At a dear friend's request, I am posting the recipe for the Greek Style Potatoes we ate the year we studied Greece. This recipe originally came from, my favorite online recipe resource.
In the summer of 2004, I planted Greek Oregano in my vigorously established herb garden. The oregano thrived and I dried and froze many lovely sprigs to use in my Christmas menu. Though this potato recipe does not call for oregano, I am fairly certain I used some in addition to the dried thyme and rosemary.
The original recipe, at the site can be found here: Without further ado:

Greek Style Potatoes, from

Submitted by: Cathie Rated: 4 out of 5 by 131 members
Prep Time: 20 Minutes Cook Time: 2 Hours
Ready In: 2 Hours 20 Minutes Yields: 4 servings

"Herbs, garlic and lemon juice bring a taste of Greece to this simple potato recipe."

1/3 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups water
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 cubes chicken bouillon
ground black pepper to taste
6 potatoes, peeled and quartered

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, water, garlic, lemon juice, thyme, rosemary, bouillon cubes and pepper.
3. Arrange potatoes evenly in the bottom of a medium baking dish. Pour the olive oil mixture over the potatoes. Cover, and bake 1 1/2 to 2 hours in the preheated oven, turning occasionally, until tender but firm.

This recipe appears in our "Allrecipes cookbook". Buy it online at

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2005 Printed from 12/28/2006

After the colorful splendor of India, we responded to the siren song of the Mediterranean, and immersed ourselves in the beauty of the Greece. There was so much more to this idyllic setting than the ancient mythologies we were already familiar with, thanks in part to the lovely copy of D'Aulaire's Greek Mythology the children's Aunt had given to them some years before. I read as much about the nation as I could, discovering hidden places with alluring names like the Dragon Lakes in the Epirus region in the mountains of northwestern Greece. I had always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail in the Eastern US. Now I yearned to hike through alpine meadows, cross 300 year old stone bridges, and find a gem of lake where I could sit and believe that dragons might rise from a hidden lair.

Even the Greek Christmas traditions surprised me. I think I expected them to be very similar to other European customs with which I was familiar. Instead, I encountered the unfamiliar, such as the Kallikantzaroi. I knew of elves and leprechauns from Irish lore, but had never heard of their mischievous Greek counterparts. These imps apparently rise from within the earth, only during the 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany, to stir up trouble. They put out fires and sour milk, and braid horses tails. A sprinkling of basil-scented holy water will keep these naughty creatures away. Offerings are also made to naiads, the spirits of springs and fountains, on St. Basil's Day, the traditional day for exchanging gifts. On the Epiphany, priests dip crucifixes into the sea and give them the Blessing of the Waters. This is not a familiar celebration of the season, after all.

Our Greek doll, Laria (which means "the stars are mine"), is proudly holding her book of traditional carols or kalanda, so that she may sing along with other neighborhood children, and be rewarded with figs, almonds and coins for her songs.

Despite all of these unexpected discoveries about Greece, it was no surprise to me that the food was a delight. For our Christmas dinner, we enjoyed - among other things - spanikopita (spinach pie) and Greek salad, potatoes with Greek seasonings, and Honey Cake, an alternative to baklava. This rich, sweet cake, drenched in golden honey, was a favorite in our household though each of us could eat only a little bit at a time.
According to, there is a Greek saying that "He who is not satisfied with a little is not satisfied with a lot." We were satisfied with our study of Greece, though we would have enjoyed much more. It was time, however, to move on to Russia with the new year.

photos of Aisling, December 2006

To study only how Christians in India celebrate Christmas would be to learn almost nothing about this nation of contrast and variety, in which Christians are only a tiny portion of a vast population. In a nation of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims, traditions of faith and culture often become interwoven. When the Christians in southern India light small clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes at Christmas time to show their faith, they are mirroring the tradition honored by Hindus earlier in the year at Diwali, the festival of lights. As in many nations, Christmas in India has also become a secular and commercial holiday, familiar to many non-Christians through media depictions.

For me, learning about India was almost sensory overload. India is a visual delight from the image of the white and stately Taj Mahal rising against a cerulean sky, to the Bengal Tiger
moving like a shadow through tall grass. A peacock fans his gaudy tail in a courtyard garden. A woman in a colorful sari paints rangoli on the walls of her home. These intricate designs known as the "prayers of India" highlight the beauty and cleanliness of one's home and are thought to please the deities.

India is also a fragrant pleasure from the scent of Nag Champa, burned as incense or inhaled directly from the delicate ginger flower, to the taste of curry and other spices rising from the cooking pot. Prior to studying India, our idea of Indian food was mostly "Country Captain Chicken" from the trusty old Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook Limerick and I received as a wedding gift - a recipe which is "almost Indian" because it contains curry powder. During 2003, we tried a variety of other Indian foods, ate lots of the Chapatis we had learned to make during our study of Kenya, and become used to the delicious aroma of homemade Chai lingering in the air.

There are several of our adopted countries that I would love to revisit, particularly some of the early countries which we studied when the children were too young to delve very deep, and when we were primarily concerned with learning about their Christmas traditions. Chief among these is India, though we did dig as deeply as we could, because there is so much more to learn.

I do revisit India occasionally by reading a favorite young adult fiction, Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan. Or more tangentially, by watching Bend it Like Beckham and eating Indian food, which is visiting India via Great Britain but lots of fun nevertheless. This one is more of a stretch (bad pun intended): I do yoga on quiet mornings, alone in my living room, and somehow that links me to India too. However far-fetched the connections, we never completely leave behind these countries on we've focused. They become too real and vivid on our internal map of the world to leave behind.

photos by Aisling, December 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006


While studying Africa, it occurred to me that we had studied a country on each of the continents except for South America. I checked out books on several South American nations, and settled on Peru, whose ancient mysteries intrigued me. I was curious about how native customs and imported customs would intertwine.

Peru is a place of mystery and enigma, beginning with the inexplicable Nazca Lines. These lines, created by the removal of dark stones to expose light earth, create symbols and designs that can only be recognized from the air. The Nazca Indians of 200 BC to 700 AD (or CE if you prefer) could not have seen their completed designs which are intricate and stylized, representing things such as spiders or hummingbirds. Were the lines geographic signposts pointing to the rising sun, or "walking temples" similar to the labrinths of other cultures? No one really knows.

Setting high in the Peruvian Andes are the fascinating ruins of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas; a place forgotten for centuries by everyone but the locals. Even in modern Peru, there remain traces of cultural traditions that are unique in all the world, such as the Floating Lake People, or Uros, of Lake Titicaca. The ancestors of today's Uros created free-floating islands to escape the threatening Inca and Colla. Today, the Uros still live on floating mats which they weave of Totura reeds, which they pull by hand from the lake upon which they float. Though today this way of life is a tourist attraction, it reverberates with the echoes of a past the Uros are gently floating away from.

Set against this backdrop of ancient native traditions, in a setting of almost other-worldly beauty, are the cities and villages of modern day Peru. The stately pagentry of the Catholic Church has been embraced by many, leading to Christmas celebrations that resemble those of other predominately Catholic nations. If the Christmas tree is a focal point in many North American households at this time of year, the Nativity scene is central in the Peruvian commemoration of the birth of Christ.

We named our 2002 Christmas Doll Louisa. I made her costume and headdress in the style of those worn by native Peruvian Dancers, but she carries the Nativity scene in her arms to show her Catholic faith. Peru is like our Louisa, blending the old with the contempory, native traditions intermingled with imported customs, Turkey dinner with tamales roasted in corn husks. Where else but Peru would the Three Kings arrive, laden with gifts for the Christ child, accompanied by a train of llamas?
photos by Aisling, December 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006


The wild sweet heartbeat of Mother Earth seemed to beckon us to Africa the following year. We settled on the nation of Kenya, whose cornicopia of climate and terrain seemed to represent the variety of the continent. In learning about Kenya's geography, we learned of hills and lowlands, woods and savannah, the Indian Ocean coast and Lake Victoria. In learning of Kenya's people, we learned of village farmers and city dwellers in Nairobi, as well as Masai Warriors and people of Middle Eastern descent. As a matter of fact, we first encountered Chapatis, a traditional Indian flatbread, when studying Kenya. We would find them a familiar favorite by the time we studied India two years later.

The celebration of Christmas in Kenya includes the traditional roasting of goat meat or beef, a dish called nyama choma, which is seasoned with garlic, lemon, curry, tumeric and other flavorful spices. With these familiar spices scenting the air, Kenyans gather to share family stories and other traditions. The birth of Christ is celebrated with song and religious services. Churches are decoriated with flowers and greenery, ribbons and garlands.

We named our Kenyan doll Kamaria, which means "Like the Moon" in Swahili. She is dressed in a traditional Kanga (a long piece of cloth, wrapped around the body) with a skafu, or scarf, as a head covering. I like to think she is heading to the church with the greenery she is carrying, perhaps singing softly to herself, and walking softly in time to the same heartbeat of the Earth that called us to Africa. Or perhaps, she is chanting to herself in the poetic, alliterative language of her land, this Swahili proverb meaning "Little by little fills the measure."

Haba na haba hujaza kibaba.

photos by Aisling, December 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


By the year 2000, we had been homeschooling for a couple of years and found that we had a lot more time to study our focus country - throughout the year, not just at the holidays. What a fascinating world, full of more color and variety than we could have imagined. My young daughters were already fans of Japanese animation, and they were eager to learn more. So, we rolled up our sleeves early in the year and dived enthusiastically into our exploration of Japan!

I designed a workshop called "Three Days in Japan: Through the Two Foot Door." Each day, we learned a few phrases, some history, and did a hands on activity (origami, a mini zen garden, Kokeshi dolls.) We also tried out one of their traditional activites, like reading Haiku or having a Tea Ceremony. We actually constructed a "two foot door" - like those in a traditional Japanese Tea House - to crawl through and had we our tea on the floor. During these three days, my girls tried Japanese foods and became proficient with chopsticks; a skill that must be serving Senryu well as an exchange student in Asia! We read Japanese storuies, such as The Crane Wife, The Toungue-Cut Sparrow, and Momotaro Peach Boy. I would love an opportunity to repeat those three days with more participants, but as it was, the girls and I had a wonderful, memorable time, with little infant Sijo as a wide-eyed witness.

It is funny that we went from the reverance of an old world Christmas in Poland, which had me seeking the spiritual meaning of the season, to the commercial vibrance of Christmas in Japan, a nation that is less than 1% Christian, as I understand it. In Japan, all Christmas traditions are relatively new, and include a lot of color and glitz. They have something called "Christmas Cake" which is a big seller in December. Christmas 2000 was not the first year we had a cake ourselves, but I doubt most Japanese sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus over their cake as we did.

A meal of Yakitori (chicken, water chestnuts and scallions on skeweres), rice and tea made up an unusal menu for an American Christmas, but we were happy to spend those few hours "in Japan" while the girls wore their improvised Kimono's and our little Japanese doll, Setsu, looked on. Setsu's name came from a Pearl s. Buck novel, The Big Wave, about the impact of a Tsunami on a coastal village.

Japanese words and interests settled in for the long haul in our home. Though we moved on to another adopted country in the new year, in many ways we were never quite able to say Sayonara to Japan.

photos by Aisling, December 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


What stayed with me after our study of Poland was complete was the symbolism and meaning behind their decorations, their songs, and even their meals. How fortunate we were to be invited to a dear friend's home for a traditional Polish Wigilia on December 24th, 1999. The name of the Christmas Eve feast comes from the latin word vigiliare, meaning to watch. Though once used for the evening before any feast, it has come to stand for the Christmas Eve meal... the "watch" or the wait, for the Christ-child to be born.

Everything served by my friend was made with love and attention to detail, from the Gefilte Fish to the various traditional components of this annual feast. We passed an Oplatek wafer around the table and broke pieces off, to celebrate our Unity, truly sharing the meal in a meaningful way. Traditionally, celebrants would have attended Midnight Mass, known as Pasterka, but small children and our own traditions precluded that conclusion to our first Wigilia.

The little dove on our Polish doll's arm does not symbolize "peace" as one might expect, but Contentment, according to Polish lore. An Old World tree might contain a heart for love, a fish for fertility, a Santa for the spirit of Christmas. A church ornament would represent religion, a pine cone warmth, and a house shelter. A flower is a symbol of beauty, a fruit basket means plenty, and a Teapot means hospitality. An angel Stands for the Eternal Life that awaits and a pickle, apparently, is thrown in for just for fun. Have you learned about the Pickle ornament? It is the last ornament placed on the tree - secretly. The child that finds the pickle wins a special gift, tucked away for just that purpose.

Through my friend's very special dinner and a nice video travel guide we purchased, Poland came to life for us that year. I find that I have a new feeling during the holidays since I've started to learn about different cultures and customs. There has always been a feeling of expectation... but now I quietly contemplate what I am awaiting. I do not want the season to be a chaos of consumerism. I want more than the giddy flurry of preparation; more than the excited flutter of expectation. I want to take joy in each and every moment of the watch... the vigilaire... the Waiting for Jesus Time.
photos by Aisling, 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006


We went way south for Christmas in 1998, at least in imagination. My mother-in-law travelled to Australia and New Zealand that year and we coordinated our study with her trip. It was fun for the kids to have some picture books directly from Australia and I enjoyed reading a crafting magazine from "Down Under."

Our Australian doll, Joey, is dressed for a Christmas Barbecue. Because Christmas arrives in the southern hemisphere during the summer months, she is barefoot and wearing a sleeveless dress. Australia is something of a "melting pot" as is the US, so their traditions include elements from England and Scotland and other "motherlands."

We ate our Christmas Picnic on the living room on a blanket, near the Christmas Tree. I believe we ate "shrimp on the barbie" and other summer fare. The children were pleased to meet the Lamington Man, the Australian cousin to the Gingerbread Man, and to learn a few Australian Christmas Carols. This was particular pretty, and very Australian in its imagery:

North Wind

The north wind is tossing the leaves,
The red dust is over the town,
The sparrows are under the caves,
And the grass in the paddock is brown,
As we lift up our voices and sing,
To the Christ child the heavenly king.

The tree ferns in green gullies sway,
The cool stream flows silently by,
The joy bells are greeting the day,
And the chimes are adrift in the sky,
As we lift up our voices and sing,
To the Christ child the heavenly king.

That pretty carol, whose tune I had to improvise, makes me want to hang "joy bells" on my front porch to ring each morning... not just at Christmas time, but all year long.
photo by Aisling, 2006

Saturday, December 09, 2006


How do you put Ireland in a nutshell? Even their Christmas traditions are rich, complex and woven with threads of Celtic imagery. Being part Irish in both heritage and inclination, my clan was eager to learn more about Irish holiday traditions.

The familiar carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" took on a whole new meaning for us, as we learned that it was written as a Catechism of the basic tenets of Catholic beliefs. In a time when Irish Catholics had to hide the evidence of their continuing faith, this song allowed children to learn about God, "the true love" in the song who gives gifts to the singer. And these are the gifts given to each Baptised believer:

A Partridge in a Pear tree is Jesus, the son of God.
2 Turtle Doves are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
3 French Hens Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
4 Calling Birds are the 4 Gospels, or the 4 Evangelists.
5 Golden rings represent the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch.
6 Geese a-laying stand for the 6 days of Creation.
7 Swans a-swimming are the 7 Gifts of the Spirit, the 7 Sacraments.
8 Maids a-milking are the 8 Beatitudes.
9 Fruits of the Spirit or sometimes listed as the 9 classifications of Angels.
10 Lords a-leaping remind singers of the 10 Commandments.
11 Pipers piping represent the 11 faithful apostles.
12 Drummers drumming are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

There are other sources on the Internet, but when we learned about this I used Anna's pages about Ireland. Look here for her page about Irish Christmas customs: I was glad to see that these interesting pages about Ireland are still maintained.

The simple act of lighting a candle in the window at this cold, dark time of year has its origin in the Celtic traditions that preceded the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In Christian households, the candlelight offers welcome to the Holy Family or hospitality to any lonely traveller. In other homes, the candle symbolizes the return of sunlight at the Winter Solstice.

Irish tradition is filled with story-telling, song and laughter. These elements have always been an integral part of our family. In fact, many of our stories have a distinct Irish lilt. Limerick's family history is peopled with Irish lads stowing away on cattle-boats and other fascinating characters, so looking to Ireland for Christmas traditions was not like visiting a foreign land at all. It was more like coming home.
first photo by Haiku, second photo by Aisling

Saturday, December 02, 2006


December of 1996 found us preparing for our first Christmas in a new home. Initially, I did not plan to "adopt a country" for Christmas as we had done with Sweden the following year. However, at some point in the year, the girls asked me which country we were learning about this year. How do you say no to children asking to learn?

I decided on Mexico, knowing that a pinata would be a fun addition to what proved to be a quiet Christmas, now that we lived far from all of our relatives. I found some children's Christmas books set in Mexico and we dived in. We read Tomie dePaola's The Legend of the Pointsettia and Nine Days to Christmas (A Story of Mexico.) My mom began to sew some little tiered skirts of Christmas fabric for the girls, and I hastily put together a costume for a brown-haired, brown-eyed doll.

The girls were excited to have a yellow star-shaped pinata like little Ceci in Nine Days to Christmas. They loved the story of Ceci's first "Posada." I especially like this passage that describes Ceci's trip to the market place with her mother to purchase her pinata:

"As they entered the Christmastime market Ceci stopped still. Fairies and goblins must have been here in the night, she thought. How else could it be so beautiful! There were candies and toys and sparklers and painted clay figurse of Joseph and Mary and the donkey, and little lambs and cows. But Ceci didn't look long at these, for on ahead, swinging and turning in the wind, were the pinatas."

Though the term "Posada" apparently means Inn in Spanish, the tradition of Posada means much more. December 16th, nine days before Christmas, the celebration begins, commemorating the journey of Joseph and Mary before the birth of Christ. A procession forms, led by those who carry the nativity scene. The people carry lighted candles, or gifts for the Christ child, and sing the song of the Holy Pilgrims. The worshippers are "refused lodging" at the first two inns, but offered welcome at the third. Here the celebrants enter, to feast, to break open a pinata filled with toys and sweets, and to share the joy of the season with family and friends.

Celebrations really aren't that different in other cultures, are they? The difference is in the details, but the joy of spending time with loved ones, sharing food and drink, raising voices in song and laughter... those are common threads that tie people together all over the world.
photos by Aisling, November 2006