Christmas Carols, Vertep, and Kutya in Lviv: A Perfect Start to 2016

Posted by: U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt

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Lviv, January 2016
Lviv, January 2016

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.

Lviv, January 2016
Lviv, January 2016

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.

Lviv, Dominican Church, January 2016
Lviv, Dominican Church, January 2016

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.

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My Family’s Christmas Traditions

Posted by: Sheryl Bistransky, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kyiv

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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.

Celebrating Christmas and Children’s Day in Colorado

Posted by: Chandali Vinyard, Political Section, U.S. Embassy Kyiv

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Colorado Children'S Day at Boulder
Colorado Children’S Day at Boulder

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

Shambhala Shrine
Shambhala Shrine

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!

A World of Christmases

Posted by: Drew Bury, Management Officer

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Every holiday season I find myself struggling to recreate the family traditions with which I grew up.  For the better part of the last eight years, I succumbed to my laziness and Christmas entailed drinking a beer and watching television.  That has drastically changed since I got married.  The traditions previously swept under the rug quickly resurfaced, and instead of laziness, I found myself hauling a 10 foot Christmas tree up four flights of stairs and spending untold hours at Epicenter picking out Christmas tree decorations. Resting after I learned that the tree I had procured was too tall for my apartment’s ceilings, I started reflecting on my earlier Christmases, and how they might change now that I have my own family.

Like most families in the United States, the Christmas season starts once Thanksgiving ends.  All of a sudden, vendors line the streets offering Douglas firs, Virginia pines, and blue spruces and families with eager young children search for the perfect tree.  Once at home, the tree is decorated in lights and ornaments; Christmas villages, nutcrackers, caroling figurines, and Santas adorn every inch of available space; and the scent of cinnamon and clove abound.  All of this feeds the anticipation.  Children open advent calendars, systematically counting down the days until Santa arrives, until finally it’s Christmas Eve.

Fur-tree market in Seattle, USA.
Fur-tree market in Seattle, USA.

In our family, each child was afforded the luxury of opening one decoratively wrapped gift on Christmas Eve, and was then sent away to a labored sleep.  My brother and I swore that we would remain awake—a task that our excitement facilitated; but eventually we capitulated, awakened from our slumber by a doting parent, informing us that Santa had, indeed, visited our house and that presents await.  We would then run down to the living room with its lit up tree, decoratively wrapped gifts, nutcrackers, Christmas villages, and caroling figurines to find that something new had arrived—unwrapped gifts.  For our family, gifts under the tree that weren’t wrapped were those that Santa brought; a sign that we had been good children for the past year.

A modern Christmas Village
A modern Christmas Village

My wife is from Austria.  Her traditions vary greatly from my own.  Instead of setting up a tree in November, their Tannenbaums aren’t erected until a couple of days before Christmas.  Their version of Santa enters the scene in early December as St. Nicolas and his counterpart Krampus, a devilish creature that scares children and steals their toys replacing them with coal and screws.  For Christmas, the family doesn’t work together to decorate the house, but rather an angel known as the Christkind decorates and fills the house with Christmas cheer while the children are out for a walk.  They return to find a complete transformation.  The tree is decorated, gifts magically appear, and if lucky, a lock of the angel’s hair can be found near the windowsill from which the Christkind fled.

Christkind
Christkind

In Ukraine, we are attempting to combine my wife’s Christmas traditions with my own.  When I realized that my children will grow up accustomed to different Christmas traditions, I started contemplating what factors went into creating the American Christmas.  The United States is a land of immigrants, each of whom contributed their own traditions to create the American Christmas as we know it today.  I’m proud of that, and am happy to see that within the American Christmas are traces of my wife’s Austrian traditions, my mother’s parents’ British traditions, and my father’s parents’ Polish and Slovak traditions.  I’m also happy to know that my family will be continuing that custom.  Another inheritance we’ve picked up since living in Ukraine: carved wood Santas.  You’ll find those next to the nutcrackers, Christmas Villages, and caroling figurines.

Carved Santas, Santa Wood Carvings
Carved Santas, Santa Wood Carvings

Winter Solstice

Posted by: Llywelyn Graeme, Executive Assistant

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Yule Tree
Yule Tree

Of all the holidays in the Wiccan or Pagan calendar, the Winter Solstice is my favorite. Well, after Halloween of course. Everyone loves Halloween. But the Winter Solstice marks the end of the suns retreat from the sky. It renews the Goddess’s promise that the sun will return and that summer is at last on its way. The Dark King passes the veil and the young child of the sun is born this night.

Holly tree with red berries
Holly with red berries

I mark the day by eating (of course) cookies in the shape of the sun, spending time with family and close friends and a small ceremony. I always try to have a gaudily wreathed tree covered in stars and tinsel and (when it is safe to do so) candles in the living room. My family (on my Father’s side) came from Denmark in the 19th century and there the tradition of the Solstice tree dates back three or four millennia, our Christmas tree growing up was always very Pagan! One of the good things about living in Ukraine is that mistletoe is everywhere. When I want to decorate with it in the United States I have to have it imported at great cost from Europe. Here it is everywhere! I also usually have holly branches, thick with blood red berries, about.

In Seattle, where I have lived most of my life, we rarely have snow in the winter. That is another great thing about living in Ukraine. While it is still hard to get about in the ice and snow, it is wonderful to look out the window and see a lustrous deep blanket of snow turning the city into a fairyland on the longest night of the year.

The other good thing about the Winter Solstice is that my wife also celebrates Christmas, and in fact the Solstice is also our wedding anniversary! So this is a time of many great celebrations for me, and that is the best way to mark having a wonderful life, reflecting on the past year, sharing gifts and good times with friends and looking forward to the coming days. I hope you all have a safe and divine Solstice, Blessed Be!

Snow has landed!

Posted by: Llywelyn Graeme, Ambassador’s Executive Assistant

Shevchenko Park covered in snow

We had the first snowfall of the year this week and it reminded me how lovely Kyiv is in the winter. The first winter I was here we had a major wet snowfall that caught everyone off guard. It was my favorite kind of snow, very packable to make snowmen and easily to shovel. One of the things I like best about Ukraine is we always seem to have a white Christmas. In my home town (outside Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest) it snows only three or four times a year outside the mountains, and it usually melts in two or three days. When it does snow it is always wet and thick. Every few years a storm will appear seemingly out of nowhere to drop anywhere from 5 to 15 centimeters of dense “accumulation.” Cars will be stuck on bridges and freeways overnight and run out of gas.

Different parts of the United States react very differently to snow. One of the first things I noticed when I was hired by the State Department and sent to Washington, D.C. for training was that all of the cars were fairly new. On the West Coast (California, Oregon and Washington) you will often see cars on the road dating back to the 1960’s. Volkswagen beetles, Oldsmobile 88s, Chevy pickup trucks and convertibles of all kinds.

Snow chains

East of the Rocky Mountains you just don’t see that variety and age and I wondered why for some time until my first East Coast snow storm. Then I saw dump trucks everywhere covering the roads with a salt and chemical mixture. Cities there spray thousands of tons of salt on the roads every year and this causes the bottoms of the cars to, over many years, rust away. Since the snow so rarely sticks for more than a few days on the West coast, people just normally stay home and roads are covered with sand, if anything. Seattle and the surrounding areas are also extremely hilly, so any snowfall of more than 2 centimeters and many parts of the city are impassable for anyone without chains on their car (and sometimes even with chains they are treacherous!) In fact, schools and most businesses close when there is that much snow. It happens so infrequently, we just don’t remember how to drive in it.

Holiday Cheer All Year Round

Posted by: Joye Davis-Kirchner, Consular Officer

As the year ends and we find ourselves between Western and Eastern Christmas, it is only normal to look back at the past twelve months and take stock.  In the past year, I had the honor to work with an incredible staff of Americans and Ukrainians as the Immigrant Visa Unit Chief in the Embassy’s Consular Section.  In the job, probably the most important single thing I did was to help Ukrainian orphan children to realize their dream of having a family and to help American families in their dream of having children.  It was like Christmas all year round.

While people may disagree about many things, it’s clear that the best thing for kids without parents is to become part of a family.  It’s best if this is through domestic adoption or foster care — Ukraine has done a great job of this — but that is not always possible.  Then international adoption, especially for special needs children who would otherwise remain in orphanages, can play an important role.  We Americans highlight this by celebrating adoption as a positive way to build families each November, which is marked every year as Adoption Month in the U.S. 

During this year’s Adoption Month, Liliya Khlebnikova (our Ukrainian adoption expert) and I had the rare opportunity to represent the Embassy at the international conference “Ukraine Without Orphans” in Kyiv.  This conference brought together over 500 participants from Ukraine, the United States, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Belarus.  The theme of the very useful conference was “Touch a Child – Change the Future.”  Especially significant for me, besides having the opportunity to explain the Embassy’s role in supporting adoptions in a presentation for the participants, was to learn more about partnerships and networks serving children at risk both on the national and international levels.  I was deeply moved by the stories of older children and the children with special needs (Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc.), who had successfully found families through adoption.   

The Cornish Family

I was particularly impressed by Reece’s Rainbow.  This organization specializes in finding families for children with special needs.   Meredith and Michael Cornish, who are associated with Reece’s Rainbow, are some of the most remarkable people that I have met since arriving in Ukraine.  Meredith and Michael have six children, three – biological and three – adopted, with Down syndrome.  They are now adopting two more Ukrainian kids with Down syndrome.   In a meeting with Consular Section staff, they explained to us why families adopt children with HIV, blindness, arthrogryposis, spina bifida, fetal alcohol syndrome, or Down Syndrome.  Meredith and Michael also told us how these disabilities influence the adopted children and their new families.  

In addition to her duties at home and her work with the Reece’s Rainbow, Meredith Cornish has her own blog at http://www.mcornish.org, where she gives online advice to families who have adopted kids or have their own kids with Down syndrome.  If you want a first-hand view of special needs adoption, look no further.

Thanks to Meredith and Michael, and many other wonderful Ukrainians and Americans who work to find families for special needs orphans through international adoption, and the opportunity to facilitate their work, I felt a little bit like Santa Claus all year long.