Every March 8, as Ukraine celebrates International Women’s Day, we pause to celebrate the contributions women make to our families, our workplaces, and our world. But it’s not only on March 8 that I’m reminded of the strength and resilience of Ukrainian women – every day, as I interact with them in government, civil society, business, culture, and education, I’ve seen firsthand their tremendous courage. One of the biggest stories of the past three years is Vladimir Putin’s dangerous underestimation of Ukrainian women. They are truly a force to be reckoned with.
On the Maidan, I was privileged to witness Olha Bohomolets caring for the wounded and dying. Her medical corps was a model of compassion blended with quick-thinking skill. And who can forget Ruslana singing Ukraine’s anthem night after night, unintimidated by the violence she and other Maidan protestors faced? She sang for freedom, for the dream of so many Ukrainians to live in an open, democratic European society, and none of us who heard her song can ever forget it.
And, of course, there is Nadia Savchenko. I am constantly amazed by the bravery that Nadia has shown through every day of her unjust and illegal captivity in Russia. Her kidnapping, imprisonment, and “trial,” all in clear violation of the Minsk agreements, is an outrageous mockery of international law. In spite of this, Nadia has stayed strong, never wavering in her love of country and in her refusal to let the crimes against her break her spirit. Nadia was already a trailblazer as the first female graduate of Ukraine’s Air Force Academy; her incredible courage in the face of her ongoing detention makes her even more worthy of our deepest respect.
I had the great honor to host Nadiya Savchenko’s mother Mariya in my home last week, along with more than a hundred other amazing Ukrainian women. In honor of Women’s Day, we invited each guest to bring an important woman in her life. The incredible group of women that resulted spanned generations and was a cross-section of Ukrainian society. Every day these women fight corruption, build civil society coalitions, pass new laws, drive technological innovations, and engage in ground-breaking research. But what united all of them was a shared vision of Ukraine’s future in a Europe whole, free, and at peace.
Valuing the extraordinary contributions made by women is not just good economic or political sense: it is basic fairness and respect for human rights. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have both made the rights of women and girls a top priority. In Ukraine, we see the importance of women’s contributions every single day. Women played a huge role in the Maidan, and continue to drive reforms in and through the new government. Whatever changes come in the future, I know that the determined women who have shaped my time in Ukraine will be at the forefront. Long after the tulips have wilted, let’s resolve to remember and celebrate the contributions of these tremendous women every day of the year.
Happy New Year, everyone! I was especially lucky to spend my first week back in Ukraine celebrating Christmas in Lviv. Lviv is always beautiful, but the snow-covered churches and Rynok made this trip especially memorable.
As someone who’d never had the chance to visit Lviv during the holidays, I found the level of activity amazing. Thousands gathered in the Rynok, with long lines for ice skating and to climb the tower of the Administrative building.
It reminded me a lot of the big Christmas markets I remember from our time in Vienna. A member of the Rada who joined me in walking around the old town introduced me to Ukrainians from all corners of the country — from Odesa, Slovyansk, Kyiv, and Kharkiv – who had gathered to celebrate in Lviv. It was a powerful demonstration of a united Ukraine.
I was moved to listen to Christmas carols in the Dominican Church, which would have been outlawed in the Stalin era, and enjoyed the many Vertep processions. Though the tradition of putting on Christmas plays is common across many countries, I didn’t realize how political the Vertep is, with its unique combination of humor, music, and irony. Later in the evening, I had the rare opportunity to join Mayor Sadovyi, friends, and colleagues for a traditional family Christmas dinner, where I had my first chance to taste kutia. It was delicious! Given how sweet it is, I can understand how it is a once-a-year treat.
Each of these many Christmas traditions exemplifies the pride and creativity that are unique to Ukraine’s national character, and I was glad to share in them with so many Ukrainians united by family, friendship, and tradition. It was a fitting start to what promises to be a historic year, and makes me even more optimistic about all that 2016 has in store for Ukraine.
This Thursday, we celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving, which is when American families come together to give thanks for the benefits that they have enjoyed through the year preceding, and to look ahead to the rest of the holiday season. Each year, across America, the train stations and airports are like the train stations and airports in Ukraine around the New Year. It’s by far the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, with people traveling great distances to get back to their families for the holiday.
And of course, as many of you will have seen in American movies, Thanksgiving is about food! Turkey (this is the most essential), cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie are all classic dishes of the traditional American Thanksgiving table. Everyone eats more than they should – it’s all part of the holiday spirit.
(And in case you missed it, you can watch me talking to “Snidanok” on 1+1 about American Thanksgiving traditions earlier this week here.
The Thanksgiving holiday has its roots in American history. Some 400 years ago, a group of “Pilgrims” left their homes in Europe and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of liberty and prosperity. In America, they found the friendship and kindness of the Native American Wampanoag people, who taught them how to harvest the bounty of a new world. Together, they shared a successful crop, and celebrated bonds of community and friendship during a time of great challenge and hardship.
The legacy of that first Thanksgiving has endured through times of war and of peace. During the American Revolution and the Civil War, days of thanksgiving drew Americans together in prayer and in the spirit that guides us to better days. And in each year since, our nation has paused to show our gratitude for our families, communities, and country. It’s a holiday that brings every American together.
This holiday season, we have much to be thankful for. We pay tribute to all those who defend our countries as members of the Armed Forces, as well as the brave heroes serving on Ukraine’s front lines in the east. We are deeply grateful for their service and their sacrifice. I want to give special thanks to the 300 or so soldiers of the 173rd Airborne, who will not be with their families at Thanksgiving, and instead will spend the holiday serving their nation and helping to work with our Ukrainian partners to develop Ukrainian’s capacity to defend its own sovereign territory.
Thanksgiving is also a time when Americans remember the less fortunate. At shelters and soup kitchens, Americans give back to their communities, keeping in mind the important role that faith and charity played in helping our ancestors forge a new life rooted in freedom and opportunity.
You can watch President Obama’s Thanksgiving address here. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, but as President Obama has noted, the spirit of Thanksgiving is universal. It is found in small moments between strangers, reunions shared with friends and loved ones, and in quiet prayers for others. Within the heart of America’s promise burns the inextinguishable belief that together we can advance our common prosperity – that we can build a more hopeful, more just, and more unified nation.
These are the very same values that Ukrainians fervently believe in and have been fighting for. This Thanksgiving week, let’s recall the shared values that unite our two countries, and resolve to strengthen the lasting ties between our peoples.
Last week, the United States marked the 239th anniversary of its independence – and I was lucky enough to celebrate the Fourth of July not once, but twice! First, on July 2 – the day the Second Continental Congress voted for independence in 1776 – I was delighted to welcome a broad range of luminaries from Ukrainian government, civil society, and business to my home for the Embassy’s annual Independence Day reception.
Our Marine Security Guards presented the colors in their best dress, visiting members of the U.S. Army Choir sang a moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and Ruslana rocked the Ukrainian national anthem like no one else can. It was a great opportunity to visit with friends and colleagues, enjoy a taste of home, and celebrate the core values the United States and Ukraine share. Plus, I got to wear the really great American flag vyshyvanka that was given to me as a gift by our friends at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On Saturday, the actual Fourth of July, I joined the American Chamber of Commerce for its annual Independence Day Picnic at the Kyiv International School – another fun event with great company, food, and music by our Embassy band, Duck and Cover.
The Fourth of July has always been my favorite American holiday. Beyond the fireworks, the barbecuing, and the beer, it’s fundamentally about democracy, rule of law, and the principles of freedom. For the early United States, this was no easy road. In our own Revolution, we had to fight for these principles through hard times, times when democracy seemed like it might be a failed experiment. At a time when Ukraine is challenged as never before, our Independence Day was a time to look ahead to what Ukraine stands to gain at the end of its own hard road: the self-determination and true democracy that was the central demand of those who stood on the Maidan.
I’m excited to see what the future holds as we work together to accomplish these shared goals. The United States is proud to be a partner as both we and Ukraine strive to perfect our democracies, and we are grateful to have the chance to share this holiday with the people of Ukraine.
Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality in the United States. The third Monday in January marks Martin Luther King Day, a U.S. holiday that honors King’s legacy and challenges citizens to engage in volunteer service in their communities.
Beginning the journey
Born on January 15, 1929, to a long line of Baptist ministers, King grew up in Atlanta at a time when Jim Crow laws made segregation and discrimination a daily reality for blacks in the South.
King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he came to view religion as a powerful catalyst for social change. He received his doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology before returning to the South, where he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, a yearlong campaign touched off when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. After the Supreme Court overturned Alabama’s bus segregation laws in 1956, King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and promoted nonviolent action for civil rights throughout the South. He was influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and traveled to India in 1959.
An iconic figure of the 1960s
Joining his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King continued to use his oratorical gifts to urge an end to segregation and legal inequality. Throughout the 1960s, he was arrested during nonviolent protests in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. While incarcerated after one such arrest, in 1963, King penned the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, outlining the moral basis for the civil rights movement. That August, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington.
March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday because voting-rights marchers were beaten by state troopers and civilians as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The violence turned them back, but the ordeal led King to call for another, longer march (pictured) — an 87-kilometer-long, Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights.
Civil rights victories
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment, public accommodations and other aspects of life. King attended the signing of the act into law (pictured). He continued to press for a law to ensure that blacks could not be denied the right to vote by discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, and, in 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
In the wake of assassination
On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony outside his Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room. At his funeral, thousands of mourners marched through Atlanta behind a mule-drawn wagon bearing his coffin.
In a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” King urged black Americans to continue their commitment to nonviolence, but also cautioned that “justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”
King’s legacy: Nonviolent protest
In a 1959 radio address during his visit to India, King said: “Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” His philosophy was inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent action to end British rule in India. In his turn, King inspired others to change their societies through nonviolent means, from the Solidarity movement’s cracking of Soviet occupation in Poland to Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.
King’s legacy: Fighting prejudice
During the 1963 March on Washington, King declared that all people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The King Center in Atlanta is a living memorial to King’s vision of a free and equal world dedicated to expanding opportunity, fighting racism and ending all forms of discrimination.
King’s legacy: Pursuing social justice
The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is home to the King Papers Project, a comprehensive collection of all of King’s speeches, correspondence and other writings. The institute is also involved with the Liberation Curriculum Initiative and the Gandhi-King Community, both of which use King’s life and ideas to connect social activists around the world working to promote human rights.
King’s legacy: Service to others
In the U.S., Martin Luther King Day is designated a national day of service. Americans are urged to celebrate “a day on, not a day off” in honor of King’s commitment to improving the lives of others. President Obama promotes volunteerism as a way to help meet the challenges facing our world.
Keeping the dream alive
A national memorial to King was built near the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The memorial invites visitors to reflect on King’s life and legacy.
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.
December is a special time of year for all Americans, no matter what part of the country one lives in or religious background one has. My favorite part of the holiday season in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado is the giant star lit up on the side of the mountain above the city between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Boulder, well known for being one of the most unusual towns in the United States, is situated at the foot of the majestic Rocky Mountains. It attracts a wide variety of people, especially those interested in alternative health and lifestyles and passionate about outdoor activities. My parents both moved to Boulder in the 1970s, and as young adults, became part of the Shambhala Buddhist community there, which is one of the largest Buddhist communities in the United States.
While my mother’s family has Jewish Eastern-European roots and my father’s family has Christian English-French roots, at our home we celebrated a mix of Christmas and Children’s Day, the Shambhala Buddhist holiday that falls on the Winter Solstice, December 21. Decorating for the holidays usually started sometime in mid-December, whenever my mom was ready to go out and look for a Christmas tree at one of the lots around town. My mom truly has one of the most beautiful collections of Christmas ornaments I’ve ever seen, including beautifully decorated glass balls that my grandmother’s family brought from Poland to the United States, as well as newer ornaments that my grandmother, mother, my sister and I have carefully picked out over the years. I vividly remember getting the boxes of ornaments out of storage and opening up each meticulously wrapped ornament, hoping that it would be one of my favorites so that I could find the perfect prominent place for it on the
tree. We always saved our lovely tree topper, stacked onion-shaped golden balls with red and silver adornments, bought in Russia by my great grandmother, for last. Once the tree was done, it was time to set up our Children’s Day shrine. We used a small table next to the tree, spread with a golden-yellow satin cloth, as gold is a royal color in Shambhala Buddhism. Then came the King and Queen of Shambhala, two exquisitely-dressed cloth dolls, and a number of special objects and offerings, including candles, juniper branches, incense, candies and other small objects sacred to our family.
Since we celebrated both Christmas and Children’s Day, in my family we never opened any gifts on Children’s Day, though I had friends who did. Our family would go together to the Buddhist center in Boulder, the Shambhala Center, for the Children’s Day events. The main event was the Children’s Day play, featuring community members as the Rigden King and Queen of Shambhala, and the tiger, lion, dragon and garuda (a fictional Buddhist animal). The play centers around the magical city of Kalapa, which is the capital of the Kingdom of Shambhala. Generally every year the play and story are slightly different, but always emphasize upliftedness, generosity, kindness and cheerfulness, with the King and Queen hosting a grand banquet for all the children and families of the Kingdom to celebrate the specialness of their children and to bring warmth, light and cheerfulness to the end of the year. The story may also have the King and Queen delivering gifts to children, similar to the way that Santa does in the Christian tradition. The Shambhala community’s celebration of Children’s Day is inspired not only by pagan celebrations of mid-winter but arises also out of the Japanese holidays of Boy’s Day and Doll’s Day, two separate days in spring when boys and girls of a certain age are presented to the temple and honored with special gifts.
For me, Christmas Day on December 25 is not a religious holiday, but a day to spend enjoying time with family, opening presents, admiring our beautiful tree, and eating. Our family spends weeks picking out gifts for each other, and we also take a lot of joy in wrapping every gift, be it tiny or large, in pretty, artistic wrapping paper and ribbon. After opening presents, we often go out to a movie in the afternoon, or play board games before dinner. While our family doesn’t have any particular dinner that is a must for Christmas, the day is not complete without cookies. My mom and I usually select a few cookie recipes from her old collection of Gourmet magazines to make every year in the days leading up to Christmas. Dinner on Christmas is usually something like roast beef and baby potatoes, a French baguette and a fresh green salad, with pie and cookies for dessert.
Now that I’m an adult living away from home, my holiday celebration has changed. When I’m not able to go home for the holidays, I have my own slowly growing collection of ornaments to put on a small tree. I don’t celebrate Children’s Day anymore since I don’t have any children yet and am not a practicing Buddhist. However, I would love to celebrate it again when I have my own children, because it is special to my heart and I like the messages in the Children’s Day story.
Cheerful Children’s Day and Merry Christmas to all!