Posted by: Sheryl Bistransky, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kyiv
The kids started asking about putting up the Christmas tree around December 1. My husband and I finally gave in and pulled out the Christmas decorations in mid-December. We put Christmas music on the stereo (some favorites: Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, Bing Crosby’s classic recording of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and of course, traditional carols, like “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High”), and we decorated the house together. When the children were very small they would help a little bit with hanging the ornaments on the tree, at least as high as they could reach. When all of the ornaments had been arranged just right, my husband Bill would swing one of the kids up to perch either the angel or the star (their choice!) on the very top. Now teenagers, the kids do it on their own, stringing the lights and putting the ornaments on while Bill and I look on, amazed that our little ones grew up so fast. Both are tall enough this year to reach the top without help. Our Christmas stockings are hung up on a stair railing, since we don’t have a fireplace mantel. There’s even a tiny stocking for Izyuminka, our cat.
Our Christmas tree reflects our family history. On our tree there are a few ornaments from when I was very small – a ceramic snowman that I scrawled over in black, purple, and green when I was three or four years old, and a carefully-painted Christmas angel that I made in school in fourth grade. There’s a hand-crocheted star that my aunt gave everyone in the family for Christmas in 1980. There are little plastic gnomes under the tree that used to decorate the stairs in Bill’s childhood home. There are three little hand-sewn ballerinas that my sister gave me when I moved into my first apartment. (Those spent a few years on the floor, not on the tree, since they were my daughter’s favorite toys when she was a toddler.) There are two very fragile glass ornaments from a set that my father bought for my mother when they were first married. There are pictures of my kids as babies. And now, ornaments that my children made in school. As we travel the world as U.S. diplomats, we add traditional decorations from the countries where we have lived. There are carnival masks from the Dominican Republic, the White House annual Christmas ornament from 2009 (we were living in Washington, DC that year), tiny valenki from a shop at Sergiyev Posad (a memory of our Moscow posting), hand-painted wooden matreoshki, and, of course, a little trizubets and a mace.
In mid-December I had the piano tuned so that it would be ready for us to gather around and sing together on Christmas Eve. On Ukrainian St. Nicholas Day, I really got into the holiday spirit and started to bake cookies. Each American family has its favorites. When I was little we would make mountains of sugar cookies and spend hours decorating them. I remember as a little girl being so proud of my creations – a snowman, an angel, a Christmas tree. Strangely, my kids aren’t fond of sugar cookies, so we make our own mountain of different ones: poppy seed, Snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, and pepparkakor, a Swedish delight.
My husband’s grandmother was from Sweden. Each year she would make pepparkakor, a thin ginger cookie which she decorated with colored sugars. The cookies had to be made in very particular shapes and colors. A star, a bell, or a heart, and red and green sugars only. Period. It was tradition! Grandma Svea was kind enough to share her recipe with me when I was newly married, so now we still make pepparkakor cookies every year – but with a difference. You know, one of the secrets of good rolled cookies is to roll the dough out as few times as possible. When you cut out stars and bells, there are small spaces left between the cookies. Years ago, I was cutting out the cookies with our son, who may have been four or five years old. I asked him what we should do with the extra dough. He reached into the bag of cookie cutters, and pulled out small, narrow ones – in the shape of a dog bone and a bare foot. So we started to make pepparkakor in those shapes. And then, when our daughter came along, she decided that she wanted not just red and green sugars, but pink and purple, too. So now we make mountains of Grandma Svea’s cookies every year, but there are purple and pink dog bones and feet next to the red and green stars and bells. I hope Grandma Svea understands, and is happy that her memory – and her cookies – are still an important part of Christmas for us.
I’m sure that when my kids grow up, they’ll adapt our traditions to fit their lives. There will be different ornaments on their trees, and some new cookies on their holiday tables. But one thing will stay the same. Like Americans everywhere, we’ll gather together at Christmastime – maybe in person, and maybe just via Skype. We’ll take time to look back and look forward, to be thankful for our family and friends back home.
But for now, we’re celebrating together this year in Kyiv. So we’ll gather at our holiday table – with our purple and pink dog-bone ginger cookies, and give thanks for our friends and colleagues here in Ukraine, with whom we’re writing the next chapter in our family’s history.