Thanksgiving: a Uniquely American Holiday Built on Universal Values

Posted by: U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt

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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.

The life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted by: ShareAmerica

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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

A two-story yellow house with brown shutters and wraparound porch (National Park Service)
A two-story yellow house with brown shutters and wraparound porch (National Park Service)

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.

Today, King’s Atlanta birthplace is registered as a National Historical Site with the National Park Service.

Civil rights struggle in the 1950s

Martin Luther King with hand on boy's shoulder at head of line of demonstrators at street (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King with hand on boy’s shoulder at head of line of demonstrators at street (© AP Images)

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

King seated, looking upward through jail cell bars (National Archives)
King seated, looking upward through jail cell bars (National Archives)

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.

King leading throng of marchers across bridge (© AP Images)
King leading throng of marchers across bridge (© AP Images)

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

King accepting signing pen from Lyndon Johnson, seated, as others look on (© AP Images)
King accepting signing pen from Lyndon Johnson, seated, as others look on (© AP Images)

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

Martin Luther King's coffin in wagon amid throng of mourners in street (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King’s coffin in wagon amid throng of mourners in street (© AP Images)

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

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King with group of people (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King with group of people (© AP Images)

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

Martin Luther King speaking at 1963 March on Washington (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King speaking at 1963 March on Washington (© AP Images)

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

Martin Luther King in shirt sleeves, gesturing dramatically while speaking from the pulpit (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King in shirt sleeves, gesturing dramatically while speaking from the pulpit (© AP Images)

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

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paint Martin Luther King Jr. quotes as part of a volunteer community service project. (© AP Images)
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paint Martin Luther King Jr. quotes as part of a volunteer community service project. (© AP Images)

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

© AP Images
A black man putting his hand on the MLK Memorial, with bowed head (© AP Images)

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.

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!

Fourth of July – Even Strangers are Feeling Pride for America

Posted by: Olena Maryenko, 1998 FLEX Program Alumna
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Photo: http://dc.about.com/od/hoildaysseasonalevents/ss/July4th.htm

My first 4th of July celebration I marked in Washington D.C. with all its festivities, grandness, and thousands of people who came to participate and observe. The parade on Constitution Avenue was a picturesque kaleidoscope of American history and American heroes. All participants were dressed up in costumes to represent various important events in U.S. history, and in between the historical personas high school music bands and orchestras entertained the crowd. Thousands of tourists with cameras, alongside TV journalists, were filming the procession. The parade started at Capitol Hill and continued to the White House, thus representing the importance of two major pillars of U.S. Independence. Like everything else in the American capital – the parade was well organized, supported by dozens of police officers, rescue and ambulance teams.

Photo: http://www.examiner.com/article/fun-4th-of-july-events-for-the-gay-community-d-cI spent my second 4th of July celebration in Annapolis, a little Maryland town just outside of D.C. This one was totally different, but at the same time quite an entertaining experience. The city of Annapolis’s parade was a true tribute to city heroes and city residents. The police chief, fire brigade, city mayor, zumba class for senior citizens, and high school dancing group were all marching down the main city street dancing, playing music and giving out sweet treats to little observers. The atmosphere of joy and festivities was definitely welcoming and cheerful. The parade continued on to the yacht club, where everyone could enjoy a beautiful water view. Later in the evening under the sunset light, the Marine Academy orchestra was in full swing. People were laughing, dancing, eating ice cream or simply enjoying the beautiful melodies under the darkening skies…it was hard not to fall under the 4th of July celebration spell. I fully immersed myself into the spirit and shared the tremendous pride and joy that Americans have for their country and fellow countrymen. It’s impossible to describe how different people, often total strangers, are unified by a strong feeling of pride for America, American people and American Independence.

 

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.

Thursday Nov. 25 is Thanksgiving Day

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché

President Obama Official Proclamation of Thanksgiving Day 2010

President Obama Pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey (video)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and many Americans would probably say the same. I love the fact that the day is focused on family and being thankful for our blessings in life, and that it hasn’t become commercialized like some other holidays.

There are different stories about the origins of the day and what occurred at the “first” Thanksgiving. It’s generally agreed that Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag Indians. President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863, during the American Civil War. The day became firmly fixed on the fourth Thursday in November in 1942, during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Continue reading “Thursday Nov. 25 is Thanksgiving Day”