Thursday, December 24, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 24 and ice lanterns

During these darkest days of the year it is natural to want to celebrate light. With the marking of winter solstice the days have started to get longer, but there are still many months until spring returns. We’ve already shared our ice mandalas, an icy craft that adds a festive touch to the holidays on these cold days, but we’ve left our ice lanterns for last – to bring light to your dark nights this holiday season.

This might be the easiest craft yet, and you’ve probably got all the necessary materials already. One morning I dug out the half-empty latex balloon bag from the cupboard and we retreated to the kitchen to fill them up. If you don’t have balloons you can use any bowl or container – you’ll just have an open-top lantern.

After filling them to the point where they were large enough to hold a tea light, we tied them securely and put them in the freezer. If you live in a more northerly climate you could leave them outside to save freezer space. It took somewhere between four to eight hours for them to freeze enough to use as lanterns; you want the exterior shell to be solid but the inside liquid. Make sure to remove the balloon over the sink as the remaining water will gush out once the balloon is removed. Hopefully the top (where the air bubble was) will not be frozen; one of our balloons was obviously smaller than the others and I had to gently break through the weakest side to provide ingress for the candle.

Photo credit Sarah

If you’re using regular containers like our friend Henri, make sure to put a smaller container in the middle (where the candle will go) and weigh it down before adding water. Container lanterns can be decorated with cranberries, evergreen branches or other festive decorations, similar to the ice mandalas. There’s an easy tutorial on the Pickled Herring blog

It wasn’t cold enough here in the Upstate to enjoy our ice lanterns for long, but these would make wonderful outdoor decorations for a New Year’s Eve party. Imagine a line of them lighting the way to your door upon returning from the Christmas Eve service, beckoning you to the warmth and coziness of your living room and a festive evening yet to come.

This is what I wish each and every one of you this year; may the holiday spirit find you this Christmas season, and may 2016 bring health, happiness and adventure to you and yours. Thank you for joining me in counting down the 24 days until Christmas – this is Femme au Foyer wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 23 and a stick tree

One more quick Christmas craft, inspired by nature and created from sticks!

Somehow it’s the longest and straightest sticks that hold special attraction for the boys, although many times the ones they pull from the woods have mushrooms sprouting from the ends – not ideal for this final Christmas tree-inspired art. We saved the fresher, more solid branches for this Christmas tree; perfect for a wall decoration, something to hang in a window or even a faux tree if you’re skipping the fir this year.

Because they’re always looking for an excuse to bring out the tools, I asked the boys to saw the branches one weekend. It was simply a matter of measuring them out and marking the lengths with a permanent marker – the longest was 2 feet long with ½ inch subtracted from each additional branch.

The sticks sat out on the back porch for a few weeks until we were out enjoying a sunny day and I brought out some twine to string them all together. The boys helped sort them out according to length, but I did most of the tying.

We hung some ornaments on it to give it a little color, although it might serve as a great Christmas card holder for all the beautiful holiday greetings we’ve gotten in the mail. I had been hoping to cut a star from some birch bark to top it off, but it looks festive even without. Other decorating ideas include stringing up some popcorn or cranberries as a garland, or maybe hanging your dried oranges & felt acorns on the branches.

However you choose to decorate your wooden tree, may it bring the simplicity and beauty of nature indoors. To all my readers, thank you for counting down the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas with me – just one more day until we’ve reached the end of our countdown!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 22, winter solstice!

It’s the first day of winter! The winter solstice occurred today at 04:49 on the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) time clock, the time standard that the world regulates its hours by. Beginning today days will get longer, and shadows shorter. It is also Yule (in Estonia jõulud), the winter festival with roots in the pagan solstice celebrations and the precursor to modern Christmas. Jõulud and the winter solstice were of great importance to the Baltic peoples, as many of the pagan traditions and rituals are the foundations of the modern day Christmas celebration.

In ancient Latvia Ziemassvētki celebrated the rebirth of the Sun Maiden. Traditions included the participation in ķekatas, or mumming, when costumed revelers traveled from home to home, singing and dancing. The visitors were thought to bring blessings to the homes they visited, frightening away evil spirits and encouraging fertility & bounty. Ziemassvētki was also a time of fortune telling, with all sorts of superstitions and sayings to help predict what awaited you in the coming year.

Another common tradition was the dragging of the Yule log. An oak log would be prepared in the days before Christmas, and on Christmas Eve it would be pulled by a crowd of revelers from one home to another and finally burned. Some believe that the block represents the sun, and that in pulling it up the sun is encouraged to return (the days getting longer), others, that pulling the log collects all the negative energy, adversity and bad luck which then are subsequently burned up. The bluķis need not be pulled through the entire city; it can simply be pulled around the exterior of your house and it will accomplish the same mission.

An extension of this custom is to drill holes in the log, and before the bluķu vilkšanas ceremony, participants write their worries and fears on a slip of paper and slip these notes into the log. As you gather around the fire with your family and friends, you can watch all your anxieties and burdens disappear up into smoke.

This year you can have your own bluķu vilkšana! Visit your local Home Depot’s outdoor section for a “Light ‘n Go Bonfire Jumbo” log. Grown and treated in Estonia, these birch logs are all-natural, kiln-dried fire starters. With pre-cut slots for your slips of paper, a paperboard wick for lighting and a rope handle for easy carrying, the log is an all-in-one bluķis; all you need to do is pull it and burn it!

Bluķa māte bluķi vēla
Pašā Bluķa vakarā.
Lai veļ bluķi trīsi reizi,
Nenāks mošķi caur sienmāli.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 21 and the first Christmas tree

The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals and Christmas for thousands of years. The first documented Christmas tree was in Rīga, put up in the guildhall of the Brotherhood of Blackheads - an association of merchants and ship owners.

photo source here

Decorated with sweets and paper flowers, the tree was meant to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the town hall square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it; eventually, similar to the yule log, it was set on fire.

Other early Christmas Trees in northern Europe were small cherry or hawthorn trees, transplanted into pots and brought inside to flower for Christmas. The customs have varied from century to century, year to year, fads including Christmas trees made from aluminum, white trees, fake trees and everything in between.

Our Christmas tree tradition is to bring home our fir sometime in December, decorate it with lights and ornaments, and leave it to grace our living room until early January. When I was a little girl my parents often bought a small tree for my sister’s and my room, to decorate as we wished. This year we inherited a small tree from our friends who are traveling for the holidays, and so a new tradition has been born. Lauris and Mikus have a space to put all the ornaments they made, and each night they fall asleep in the soft glow of Christmas lights.

For me it wouldn’t be Christmas without the smell of balsam in our home, the constant vigilance needed to protect the lights and ornaments from toddlers, the inevitable “shoot! I forgot to water the tree and now it’s not drinking any more” and the dry needles being vacuumed up for the next ten months. Just remember, you have Latvia to thank for this wonderful tradition!

With only several more days left in the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas series, I want to wish all my readers good luck in the last preparations for the holidays. May the traffic be light, the wait to check out merry, and may there be plenty of time to read a Christmas book to the children in your lap.

PS Because this is the Baltic Christmas series I would be remiss if I didn't mention that some claim Estonia had the first Christmas tree. For more about this hotly contested title, you can read this article from the Wall Street Journal. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 20, auseklis!

Lauris’s winter vacation has begun! Every day the boys are abuzz with all the things they want to do and see, and it takes all I’ve got to keep up with them, take care of the things that need doing, and see to it that the boys check off everything on their Christmas to-do list! Luckily we’ve got a handful of simple crafts left for those quiet moments in between outdoor adventures, such as this easy auseklīts ornament.

Although it was my sister Zinta who elaborated on this Baltic symbol last year on Day 21 of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, it was my mom who suggested the craft, showing off her finished auseklis via a skype conversation last week. Considering the ornament is made from a toilet paper roll, it is surprisingly elegant.

You take your roll and fold it lengthwise, creasing the edges with a ruler or letter opener, then repeating the step to form a square tube. This is the point that Mikus painted his, although it’s not necessary – you could also paint the finished product.

Using a ruler measure out ½ inch segments, and using scissors or a craft knife cut the tube into a total of 9 pieces – you will have one extra.

Using double-sided tape, a hot glue gun or just tacky glue, glue one side of one of the squares to a second square. Then, glue a side adjacent to the one you just glued on piece two, to a third piece. You will continue this process until you’ve glued 8 pieces together, and then you will glue the first piece to the last. Since we used glue we put off that step, letting the glue dry on the eight pieces while we had them clamped together. Remember to tuck in a piece of thread or string between the final pieces so that you have a way to hang your auseklis.

The plain, unadorned version was beautiful in its simplicity, but we opted to add a few finishing touches to ours. Glitter glue lining the edges on one side gives the light something to refract off of in the Christmas tree. A small auseklis cut from paper would make a nice embellishment in the center where all the pieces meet, or a bell hung in the string could provide a contrast in texture. Use your auseklīši as ornaments in your tree, or tie them to your presents. This can be a long craft if you choose to go the paint-and-embellish route, or it can be a quick between-the-Christmas-chores activity – your choice. And remember, you don’t have to tell anyone they’re toilet paper rolls…

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 19 and two winter drinks

While eggnog and hot chocolate are winter favorites here in the US, the cold weather drinks in the Baltics tend to be more tea-like. Today on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas I bring you two drinks to warm you up after all that time spent out in the snow! Straight from the famous Latvian ‘dzeltenā pavārgrāmata,’ the yellow cookbook Pēc acumēra un garšas, kamēr gatavs (the 1992 edition was a fundraiser for the Latvian girl and boy scouts of Chicago) are these two recipes!

Ziemas vakara padzēriens (A drink for a winter’s night)

Serves 6-8, recipe by Māra Skulte

2 ½ cups boiling water
5 bags of tea
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¾ cup sugar
2 cups cranberry juice
1 ½ cups cold water
½ cup orange juice
1/3 cup lemon juice

Pour the boiling water over the tea bags, cinnamon and nutmeg. Let stand for 10 minutes, then remove tea bags.

Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add remaining ingredients.

Serve hot!

Note: The recipe might help warm up your guests if you’ve added port!

Holden’s test kitchen would like to note that they used green tea for this recipe, and that overall it was on the sweet side. This is a good one for the kids after coming in from sledding – without the port of course. If you are looking for a treat for the adults (after coming in from sledding?), by all means, add the port – or try this recipe….

Zviedru Ziemassvētku dzēriens (a Swedish Christmas drink)

Serves 12-14, recipe by Aina Pūliņa

1 2/3 cups cognac
1 750 mL bottle Bordeaux wine
1 750 mL bottle port wine
18 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup sugar
1 cup yellow raisins
1 cup blanched almonds

Combine all ingredients in a large pot, and heat until steaming. Burn off the excess alcohol. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring all the time; do not let the mixture boil.

Serve with a few raisins and almonds in each mug.

Note: Quality ingredients are essential for this recipe. The drink can be prepared beforehand and stored in the refrigerator, reheating before serving, although it is best served fresh!

Yes, I know, a Swedish recipe for a Baltic Christmas… As it’s my great-aunt’s recipe and is published in a Latvian cookbook, we’ll just call it European! Stay warm, have a lovely weekend, and I hope you’ll join us tomorrow for another craft to do with the kids!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 18 and mistletoe

There are three plants that are most often associated with Christmas; the tree (usually a fir or spruce), holly and mistletoe. One can imagine the reason for this is that all three are evergreen, meaning they stay green throughout the winter, and so provide fragrance and color as holiday decorations. Of these three, the tree is the most common Christmas symbol in the Baltics - in fact Rīga was the home of the first Christmas tree. There is no native holly (the sharp green leaves are mostly recognized from pictures and movies), but mistletoe – puuvõõrik in Estonian, amalas in Lithuanian and in Latvian, āmulis, now this is an interesting story.

The hemiparasitic plants attach to the branches of a tree or shrub through which they absorb water and nutrients from the host plant. While the European mistletoe Viscum album makes its home in hardwoods, it rarely grows in oaks - quite the opposite of North American Phoradendron leucarpum, which actually prefers oak trees. I had never really noticed the plant before moving down South, where the giant green balls are easily identified in the winter in the southern oaks without their winter leaves. While living in Georgia I would borrow a friend's 22 to harvest enough each December to make a few decorations; shooting down one of these balls is much harder than it looks, as you have to hit the main stem to dislodge it from its perch (some prefer to use a shotgun instead - I guess I was up for the challenge of target shooting). Here in South Carolina we've luckily found some every year in storm-felled branches, and this year I discovered pruned trees in a shopping center where the mistletoe was growing within arm's reach.

While it is not certain why mistletoe is associated with Christmas as a decoration under which lovers are expected to kiss, it is clear that the plant has played an important role in European mythology. The ancient Greeks supposedly believed that the old Gods had once been offended by the plant, and so condemned it to have to look on while pretty girls were being kissed. In Norse Mythology, Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into murdering his brother Balder with an arrow made of mistletoe, the plant becoming a symbol of peace and friendship to compensate for its part in the murder. And for the Druids mistletoe was regarded as sacred; it was believed that it could cure all diseases, heal wounds and protect you from evil. The mistletoe that grew on oak trees was considered particularly strong in these qualities, and women who wanted to conceive would wear it on a belt or their wrist. Ancient Swiss legends tell of “thunder brooms,” which supposedly occurred on trees struck by lightning but more than likely were what we today call “witches’ brooms” - similar to the dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium species) of western North America, the dense masses of evergreen branching stems resemble a broom, and mythology attributes these plants with the ability to protect against magic and witchcraft. Decorating your home, inside and out, with mistletoe twigs or figures would drive out evil spirits and witches. As mistletoe is neither a tree nor a shrub and seemingly grows in the sky, it symbolizes freedom from any prohibitions and restrictions…

From the Middle Ages mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality, and by the 18th century it had become incorporated into Christmas celebrations around the world. It was in Victorian England that the tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe was first recorded, dictating that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused the kiss. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day - Au gui l'An neuf. So, what about the Baltics, you ask…

photo source and tutorial for mistletoe ball: Southern Living

The Baltics are actually on the very northernmost edge of the range of European mistletoe (my sources said it doesn’t grow in Estonia), and so the various kissing/decorating traditions have never caught on. Because of the scarcity of the plant, it has actually been designated a rare and protected species in Latvia, partially because of the berry's importance to certain birds and mammals as a food source, but also as they provide nesting habitat to various bird species. In Latvia the fine for removing/harming mistletoe is two month’s pay – therefore hanging mistletoe boughs to kiss under won’t catch on as a tradition anytime soon. So remember this year, whether you harvest your mistletoe with a rifle or a pair of shears, if you live in the Baltics it's less expensive to stick to fir and spruce!

*Please remember that although mistletoe has supposed therapeutic uses, consumption of any part of the plant or drinking tea of the plant can result in sickness and possibly death. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 17 and the Mitten

The most iconic handmade craft from the Baltics could possibly be wool mittens. Hand knit in the centuries-old tradition, the mittens feature folk symbols and traditional colors, which vary from region to region and between the three countries.

From left to right: Estonian (source here), Latvian (source here), Lithuanian (source here)

It is customary to see miniature pairs of these mittens on Latvian Christmas trees, such as the ones Laima showed us last year on Day 14 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas. Being as I don’t know how to knit and the boys can’t be trusted with knitting needles, we set out to capture the essence of these colorful ornaments in a simpler form.

We did an online image search for Latvian mittens and chose some of our favorites to print out. It was fun searching for familiar symbols within the mittens, as the boys are familiar with those of their middle names – Jumis and Ūsiņš – and I have a particular affinity for the ones with auseklīši.

source here

After cutting out the various mittens (which proved to be rather tedious and lost the boys' interest in short order), we glued them onto black cardstock. This allows for differences in size between the various cutouts, and for a piece of string, raffia or jute to be tucked in between the layers to connect pairs.

If you prefer a more authentic “pair” then remember to print out 4 of each design. We stuck to two, and had more colorful, mismatched combinations.

After letting them dry we hung them in the boys’ Christmas tree. They will serve as miniature decorations until we get some presents wrapped, at which point they will become Baltic-inspired gift tags. Depending on what size you print them, they could also make a lovely holiday card; since you’re not making them double sided, cards only require two copies of each mitten.

Online searches also yield black-and-white images such as this one. An additional step would be to color your own mittens, incorporating your own color scheme or favorite hues into the project. You could use these to decorate not only your Christmas tree and wreath, but to adorn gift bags, cards, cookie tins – anything that needs a little color and a Baltic touch!

For some not-Baltic Mitten fun, visit Jan Brett's website for coloring activities such as "put the animals in the mitten" and "tell your own mitten story with animals" - fun activities to accompany storytime!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 16, Estonian barley bread and carrot ginger soup

There isn’t much better than a hot, hearty soup on a cold winter’s day. Well, maybe a hot, hearty soup with a slice or two of homemade bread still warm from the oven on the side! Last year on a Baltic Christmas Day 11 we welcomed Marika Blossfeldt, author of “Essential Nourishment: Recipes from My Estonian Farm.” Today’s featured soup and bread are from this book: Carrot Ginger Soup and Karask – Traditional Estonian Barley Bread.

Photo credit: Katie

About the Carrot Ginger Soup Marika writes “This soup is absolutely divine. When we serve it at Polli Talu, many guests lick their plates. It is the Zen version of a recipe that I once found on the website of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.” 

Photo credit: Jaan Heinmaa

Carrot Ginger Soup

serves 4 to 6

1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 piece fresh ginger, about 2 inches long, sliced
8 carrots, sliced into rounds
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and sliced thin
4 cups boiling water
½ cup orange juice
salt and pepper
2 scallions, chopped, or some parsley leaves

Photo credit: Katie

1. In a large pot, sauté the onion in the oil for 7 to 10 minutes.
2. Add the garlic and ginger. Sauté for another 3 minutes.
3. Add the carrots, sweet potato and water. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until the carrots are tender, about 15 minutes.

Photo credit: Katie

4. Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth, adding more water if necessary.
5. Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the orange juice and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil.

Pour into soup plates and garnish with chopped scallions or parsley leaves.

Note: The skin of ginger is edible. Because the soup is pureed, there is no need to peel the ginger in this recipe. You can substitute a white potato for the sweet potato.

Karask – Traditional Estonian Barley Bread

serves 8
Photo credit: Jaan Heinmaa

This is an Estonian folk recipe that I adjusted to include only whole foods and natural sweeteners. The barley flour gives it a distinct, sweet taste.

4 ½ ounces farmer cheese
1 cup kefir or yogurt
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup barley flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
½ tablespoon baking soda

1. Preheat the oven to 400˚F.
2. Line a rectangular baking pan (5x10 inches) with parchment paper
3. Combine the farmer cheese, kefir, egg, salt and honey in a bowl and mix until smooth.
4. Stir in the melted butter
5. Combine the flours with the baking soda and add to the batter. Mix well.
6. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. To check whether the bread is ready, insert a wooden toothpick into the center. When the toothpick comes out dry, the bread is done.

Serve with butter.

Photo credit: Katie

A sincere thank you to Marika for giving permission to reprint these recipes from Essential Nourishment! More information on her books & recipes, as well as on her speaking events and retreats can be found on her website, A Holistic Health Coach and Natural Foods Chef, Marika is Founder of Polli Talu Arts Center in her native Estonia, where she conducts yoga, cooking and wellness retreats during the summer months. The winter she spends with her husband in Beacon, NY writing books and coaching clients. The book trailer for her book, Essential Nourishment, can be seen in this youtube video:

Thank you also to Holden’s test kitchen! The only notes that came from Katie were in regards to the soup; a caution that a smaller quantity of ginger was more than adequate for children’s taste buds… I’m a big fan of a hearty, healthy soup paired with homemade bread on a damp South Carolina evening, great choices you guys! Join us tomorrow for more Baltic and nature-inspired crafts here on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 15 and clay impressions

According to friends I should have just called this series a nature-inspired 24 Days of Christmas, because so many of the ornaments aren’t purely Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian… While this may be true, I have to underscore the importance of nature/the natural in the Baltics. The most important holidays of the year (Jāņi, Ziemassvētki, Lieldienas for Latvians...) are all tied to the change of seasons, and these rythms of the natural year carry over into everyday life. Historically so much depended on the natural world (the harvest especially), and so the Baltic peoples lived life close to nature: eyes open for signs that seeds could be sowed or harvested, the livestock let out to graze for the season, for animal behavior that might signal weather patterns. They were also practical folk, decorating their homes with what was on hand, such as evergreen branches, pine cones and dried grasses in the winter. Latvians were drinking bone broth and birch tree juice before they were featured on trendy NYC menus, and teas and herbal remedies have been a way of life for hundreds of years.

The traditional brown and green ceramics of Latvia certainly reflect these ties with nature, as do the traditional symbols that often adorn pots and vases. Some symbols, directly represent plants and things found in nature, such as the Jumis and Skujiņa  (I talked more in depth about Jumis here). The Skujiņa (evergreen needle) symbol is repetitive lines running parallel to one another, similar to the needles on a fir or spruce. When you draw the stem in down the middle it is called a Laimes slotiņa (Laima’s broom), Laima being an ancient Latvian goddess of the life cycles of people. With her broom she would sweep away all that’s bad from a life story...

With some Sculpey oven-bake clay that we found on sale we settled on yet another nature-inspired craft that could easily be made more Baltic by incorporating some of the traditional symbology. We rolled out the clay on a work surface, cut out shapes using cookie cutters, and then experimented with pressing various branches, leaves and seeds into the clay. The boys had fun collecting on a recent hike, the task made more enjoyable by trying to guess what would leave identifiable marks and designs on the clay.

Some items such as sweetgum seeds did not work as well, as they tended to tear holes in the clay without leaving any particular pattern. Meanwhile, evergreens left beautiful skujiņas and Laimas slotas, delicate arrangements worthy of display on our Christmas tree. The consensus was to leave our ornaments very natural this year; other than baking to harden the clay, and tying a piece of raffia and maybe a seed or bell on to hang the ornaments with, we left them alone.

In addition to painting the finished product, one could also press some of the other traditional symbols into the clay: Ūsiņa zīme, Mārtiņa zīme or an auseklīts. We’ve used lace doilies to imprint patterns, but in my opinion the most beautiful ones come from nature: western red cedars and their latticework of needles, ferns and dried seed heads, leaves with distinct veins reflecting entire trees on their surfaces… Most importantly have fun making them, and do it together as a family or group of friends – you’ll find the time together to be just as beautiful as the end result. See you tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas for a hearty Estonian winter's meal.

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