Tag Archives: Christmas

Festive Cookie Party!

This year, Thanksgiving crept up on us before we were able to organize a friendly get-together, as we have done for the past couple of years. So instead, partly inspired by this NY Times feature and partly by remembering that my mom has hosted cookie decorating parties, F and I decided to host a festive afternoon Plätzchenbackparty (“cookie-bake-party”) in early December.

A bit of festive decor

So we chose a date, sent out WhatsApp invites to friends, searched for cookie recipes, and calculated how much mulled wine to make. I got my upper body strength training by using our handheld mixer to make loads of cookie dough the night before, and we stocked up on icing (powdered) sugar and food coloring.

On Saturday, friends came and went throughout the afternoon. Many cookies were baked: I made basic sugar cookies and chocolate cookies, and others contributed Scottish caraway biscuits, Lebkuchen, and shortbread. Once the icings were made – simple powdered sugar + milk, and F made this royal icing – people got down to some serious decorating business. There were plenty of drinks to go around, holiday tunes played in the background, and the atmosphere was warm, cozy, and festive. Highlights included Shana’s Shakespeare cookie cutter (and the creativity that those cookies engendered) and the ever-elusive Christmas jellyfish…photos below!

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Recipe: Dianne’s Cranberry Cake

For me, Thanksgiving is not complete without something cranberry-ey, and all the better if cranberries appear in multiple guises: in my family, they usually appear in cranberry sauce, a surprisingly delicious jello “salad,” and this incredible cranberry upside-down cake.

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Ever since I can remember, my mom has made this cranberry cake for Thanksgiving — and often for Christmas, too, on my request. For me, it is an inseparable part of Thanksgiving and of the wintry holiday season in general. There’s something about that combination of whole cranberries baked into an orangey cake batter and topped with homemade whipped cream that puts a smile on everyone’s face.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and it’s one of the things I miss most about not living closer to home. Since Thanksgiving’s not celebrated in the UK, it’s hard to take off that random week in November. Last year, we had a lovely Thanksgiving celebration with Sarah and Joe, but alas they’re back in the US of A now (miss you guys!). F and I were going to try and host our own Thanksgiving this year, but my all-consuming DELTA course and various other scheduling conflicts mean it probably won’t happen.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes! With the holiday coming up on Thursday and the DELTA course starting to taper off (less than 2 weeks & 3 assignments to go…), I decided to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in the warm kitchen making cranberry cake.

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The cake is pretty easy to put together: pour some cranberries into a well-buttered cake pan, whip up the thick batter, spread it over the cranberries and bake! With luck, you’ll be able to invert your cake without incident and spread it with some warm jam for a finishing touch. Mine turned out a bit on the rustic side, as I used a springform cake pan which is a little bigger than your standard round cake tin — the cake was thus a bit thinner and stickier. I probably could’ve baked it for a little less time, but it still turned out deliciously and tasted exactly like it should. Go make it and you’ll know what I mean.

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Dianne’s Cranberry (Upside-Down) Cake (my mom’s recipe, adapted years ago from a Gourmet magazine; makes 1 cake)

Ingredients

  • Cranberries:
    • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
    • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
    • 1lb/16oz/500g fresh (or frozen) whole cranberries, rinsed, picked over & dried
  • Cake batter:
    • 1.25 cups all purpose (plain) flour
    • 1.5 tsp baking powder
    • 1/4 tsp salt
    • 6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
    • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
    • 1 egg
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • zest of 1 orange
    • 1/2 cup milk (I used semi-skimmed)
  • Topping (optional):
    • 1/3 cup currant or other closely-related jam/jelly (I used F’s mom’s black currant jam, as that’s what we had)

Procedure

  • Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).
  • Butter a round cake pan with the 3 tbsp butter. Sprinkle the 1/2 cup of sugar evenly over the butter, and pour in the rinsed and dried cranberries.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  • In a separate bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and orange until well-combined.
  • Alternate adding the 1/2 cup milk and flour mixture to the butter-egg mixture, beating until well-combined. The batter will be quite thick.
  • Spread the batter over the cranberries, sealing the edges and smoothing the top.
  • Bake for 1 hour, until the top is well-browned. Let cool for 20 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert onto a platter.
  • Heat the jam (if using) in a saucepan, then brush it over the top of the cake. Top with homemade whipped cream, if desired (plain yogurt is also nice, for the more health-conscious out there), and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Enjoy!

Weihnachten und Silvester in Deutschland / Christmas and New Year’s in Germany

It’s always fun and interesting to experience holiday traditions in different countries/cultures. I became familiar with most of the major Ukrainian holiday celebrations during my two years there, and my family is often invited to celebrate Norwegian Christmas Eve with friends. This year I had the chance to celebrate my first Christmas and New Year’s in Germany, with F’s family and friends. Here are a short list and a few pictures of my experiences:

  • Weihnachtsmarkt in Bonn: Germany is famous for its Christmas markets, where many people go in the evenings to meet friends, drink a warm mug of Glühwein (mulled wine), and shop for handcrafts, candied almonds (Mandeln), and Lebkuchen hearts.
  • Like many other Europeans, Germans celebrate Christmas on 24 December, what we call Christmas Eve and what they call heilige Abend. Highlights of heilige Abend include:
    • Decorating the Christmas tree (Tannenbaum) with lights, red and gold ornaments, and red candles (which may or may not get lit).
    • Enjoying a big supper with some kind of roast meat (F’s family makes Sauerbraten, a beef roast pickled/marinated for seven days beforehand), bread dumplings (Semmelknödel), and lots of gravy-like sauce.
    • Present-opening after dinner.
  • What we call Christmas Day is called “the first Christmas (holi)day,” and 26 December (Boxing Day in the UK) is called “the second Christmas (holi)day.” Both days are free days in Germany, when families can relax and enjoy each other. We had delicious kohlrouladen (cabbage rolls) for lunch one day. They’re not unlike Ukrainian holubtsi, but the German version is only ground meat wrapped in cabbage, rather than rice + meat that Ukrainians use. We also went to watch the Bonn professional basketball team play.

F and I celebrated New Year’s (Silvester) in Münster, where F studied and where most of his friends still live. Activities included:

  • (Another!) Christmas dinner with nine friends. Everyone contributed something, potluck-style. I made my mom’s sweet potato casserole and F made a delicious pot roast as the meal’s centerpiece.
  • One evening, we enjoyed grünkohl (kale cooked for ages with sausages and pork, a typical dish in Westphalia) at F’s friend’s parents’.
  • New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with friends, like in many places all over the world. We gathered at F&M’s place for raclette and then fireworks (Feuerwerke). Interestingly, Germans are only allowed to buy fireworks for the couple of days leading up to New Year’s Eve. That means Silvester has tons of people setting off their own fireworks at midnight. We walked down to the Aasee and had a great view of ours and others’ fireworks around the lake.

How does your family celebrate Christmas and/or New Year’s?

Recipe: Candied Almonds

Oh my gosh are these addicting! Buttery almonds crusted in sweet, cinnamon-y goodness with a hint of salt and spice. Too bad good thing we gave most of them away…

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F and I wanted to give little holiday gifts to some of our friends and colleagues here. We both love candied nuts — Trader Joe’s candied pecans are a favorite — and they’re a great holiday treat, so we decided to make some of our own to give away.

Enter smitten kitchen (as usual). We doubled Deb’s sugar and spice candied nuts recipe to make enough for ten little gift bags. I decreased the white sugar a bit, and next time I might cut the brown sugar, too, as the sweet-to-salt ratio was a bit too high sweet for me.

Candied nuts are really easy to make; they take about five minutes to stir together, then you just have to turn them occasionally during their half hour in the oven. You could use any kind of nuts for this recipe; we chose almonds because A) they’re delicious, and B) they’re one of the least expensive nuts here in the UK. If I had an endless nut budget, I’d make candied pecans…maybe next year?

Candied Almonds (adapted from smitten kitchen; makes enough nuts for 10-12 small gift bags)

Ingredients

  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1kg (2lbs) whole almonds (or pecans or walnuts or your other favorite nut)
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2.5 tsp salt
  • 1/8 – 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (depending on how spicy you want them; we used 1/8 because our cayenne is super hot)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

Procedure

  • Preheat the oven to 150C (300F) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg whites and water until frothy but not stiff.
  • Add the almonds to the egg mixture and stir until they’re completely coated.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Add them to the nut mixture and stir until everything is evenly combined.
  • Spread the nuts in a single layer on the parchment-lined baking sheet (we had to bake in two batches, as we have just one baking sheet).
  • Bake the nuts for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Let cool, then break apart and store in an airtight container.

Enjoy!

Recipe: Tammela’s Favorite Cranberry Sauce

One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving and Christmastime is the abundance of cranberries and cranberry-related dishes. Being in the UK, I’d searched high and low for cranberries in November, not to find any until Sarah told me just before Thanksgiving that she’d found some at Marks & Spencer. British friends confirmed that cranberries only appear here around Christmastime. Thrilled, I bought six packs of fresh cranberries to freeze and keep us “well-cranberried” through the winter.

pre-cooking

pre-cooking

My mom has an amazing cranberry upside-down cake recipe that I hope to share with you soon. In the meantime, here’s my recipe for simple, delicious cranberry sauce. You can enjoy cranberry sauce with so many different things: with meat, of course, but also on biscuits, pancakes (why not?), or straight with a spoon. I prefer to keep my cranberry sauce on the tart side, so feel free to increase the sugar in this recipe if you like yours sweeter. Orange juice and zest gives the sauce some zing, and the spices make it taste like the holidays.

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Tammela’s Favorite Cranberry Sauce

Ingredients

  • 300g (~3 cups) fresh/frozen cranberries
  • zest + juice of 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3-1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1-2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp allspice

Procedure

  • Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
  • Turn the heat down and let the sauce simmer with the lid cracked, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the cranberries have all burst and the sauce thickens, 15-20 minutes.
  • Let cool a bit before eating and/or storing.

Enjoy!

Recipe: Dianne’s Sweet Potato Casserole

My mom makes this classic family recipe every year for Thanksgiving. I don’t know where the original recipe actually comes from — I just know it as Dianne’s delicious sweet potato casserole.

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There are no marshmallows on this. While marshmallows have their place in s’mores, I believe they have no place A) at Thanksgiving, and B) on top of sweet potatoes. You are welcome to disagree with me on that front.

Sweet potatoes are such incredible things on their own that they hardly need doctoring up (see marshmallow comment, above), but this casserole adds just enough to take them above and beyond your normal weekly pan of roasted root vegetables.

I got this recipe from my mom and made the sweet potatoes for a small Thanksgiving-in-London gathering at Sarah and Joe’s. The dish got good reviews all around and I was pleased that it tasted just like it does when Dianne makes them. The cinnamon and cardamom, along with a healthy dose of orange juice, give the potatoes a warming, autumnal flavor with a bit of zing. This sweet potato casserole is quick to put together — you can even make it the day before Thanksgiving and bake it or just reheat it on the day. It also makes great leftovers.

Dianne’s Sweet Potato Casserole (serves 8-10)

Ingredients

  • 3lbs/1.5kg sweet potatoes (about 3 large ones), peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 2/3 – 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup pecans

Procedure

  • Preheat the oven to 375F (190C).
  • Put the sweet potato chunks in a large pot and add water until the potatoes are just covered. Bring to a boil and let simmer until the sweet potatoes are soft/mashable, 15-20 minutes.
  • Drain the sweet potatoes, then mash them in the pot.
  • Add everything but the pecans to the sweet potatoes, and mix until thoroughly combined.
  • Pour the sweet potato mixture into a casserole dish  (I didn’t have one so used a springform cake pan) and arrange the pecans on top.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes, then let cool slightly before serving.

Enjoy!

Recipe: Orange Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Chocolate Chunks

The baker in me offered to make something for Christmas Eve dinner with friends. I had seen this Joy the Baker recipe and was excited to try it, so Christmas Eve was really just an excuse to do so. Because I have struggled somewhat with Joy the Baker recipes, I decided to follow this one as closely as I could, in the hopes that it would turn out as well as most of the smitten kitchen recipes do. Don’t get me wrong, I love Joy’s blog, but I have had trouble with some of the cooking times and ingredient amounts.

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This pound cake came out pretty well. Despite browning quite a bit on top, it didn’t end up cooking all the way through — the middle was raw batter, despite the fact that I baked it for the upper end of the allotted time. Other than that, though, the orange flavor came through well and multiple family friends could not stop nibbling at it! I would make this again and pay closer attention to baking time and done-ness.

chocolate: an ever-important addition

chocolate: an ever-important addition

Orange Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Chocolate Chunks (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp orange zest (from 1 orange)
  • 1 (8-oz) package cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup dark or bittersweet chocolate pieces

 

Procedure

  • Preheat the oven to 325F and put the rack in the center. Grease a 9×5″ loaf pan and dust it with flour.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  • In another bowl, use your fingers to massage the orange zest into the sugar to make a nice flavored sugar.
  • In a third bowl, use an electric mixer to cream together the butter and cream cheese. Once they are evenly mixed, add the zesty sugar and beat at medium speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy, 1-3 minutes.
  • Add one egg at a time to the sugar-butter mixture and beat for 1 minute after each egg is added. Beat in the vanilla.
  • Add the dry ingredients all at once and beat the mixture on low until thoroughly mixed. Fold in the chocolate pieces.
  • Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and bake for 50-60′, rotating periodically during baking, until a skewer comes out relatively clean.

Enjoy!

 

Recipe: Lemon Cranberry Scones

My parents often make apricot coffee cake for Christmas morning, but this year no one thought about it until we’d already gone shopping. And we did not feel like tacking Wegmans again the day before Christmas… As a coffee cake alternative — though I could’ve made this — I thought scones would be a perfect accompaniment to present-opening and coffee-drinking around the Christmas tree. Double points because my mom loves scones so much. These days, when I need a foolproof recipe I turn to smitten kitchen. She does an amazing job; every recipe I or someone I know has tried from her blog has turned out really well.

Lo and behold, smitten kitchen has a delicious-looking recipe for lemon and fresh cranberry scones, for which we had all the ingredients (that was the important requirement) and which I could freeze the night before and bake the next morning. I followed the recipe exactly, except I substituted buttermilk for heavy cream.

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The scones were a huge hit! This recipe makes ten good-sized scones, and by the day after Christmas only one is left. My mom, dad, and brother raved about them. They were easy to mix up and freeze, and they baked beautifully straight from the freezer on Christmas morning. I’ll definitely make these again.

Lemon Cranberry Scones (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients

  • 1.5 tbsp lemon zest (or the zest of 1-2 lemons)
  • 2.5 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 stick (6 tbsp) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 1-1.5 cups fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped (I used 1.5 cups)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Procedure

  • If baking the same day, preheat the oven to 400F and grease a baking sheet.
  • Set up your food processor and pulse the flour, sugar, powder, salt, butter, and zest. Move the mixture to a large bowl.
  • Pulse the cranberries in the vacated food processor until they are coarsely chopped. Add them to the flour mixture.
  • In a separate bowl, beat the egg, yolk, and buttermilk. Add to the dry mixture and stir until just combined (the dough will be quite sticky).
  • Flour a flat surface and pat the dough into a 1″ think round. Cut out scones of your desired shape with a knife or spatula, and arrange them on a cookie sheet. If baking right away, bake them for 15-20′. If not, flash-freeze them on the cookie sheet and bake just out of the freezer for 20-25′.

 

Enjoy!

колядки

What are колядки (kolyadky), you may ask? Why, carols! Christmas/New Year carols, to be exact. Ukrainians have many traditional New Year and Christmas carols, some really beautiful. Many sound similar, but maybe that’s because Ukrainians songs use similar harmonies. The school choir sang a few carols to us teachers this morning. I took some video clips to introduce you to Ukrainian holiday greetings and carols:

 

This next one, “добрий вечір тобі,” (dobryy vechir tobi = “good evening to you”), is a classic. As in I’ve heard it so many times already that I almost know all the words. But I like it.

 

And this one’s called “Нова радість стала” (nova radeest’ stala = “discover the joy”). Also a popular one.

 

Happy singing!

Things Ukrainians Write: Letters from my 10th form pupils, holiday edition

A few memorable lines from the third set of letters written to me by my 10th form pupils. They all wrote to me about winter holidays. (See their first letters here.)

  • Oxy-moronic? But in Ukraine it’s true. “The symbol of the New Year is a Christmas tree. -Christina
  • Holidays like people? “I think that this holiday like all people, because we meet a new year.” -Vika
  • An interesting story and wise words from Roman T.: “I think, that…we must study [English]. I see this in one fact; this happened with my brother Dima. Two years ago, he studied at Chernivtsy and he met one American. He asked my brother: ‘How [can I] go to the railway station?” Dima [gave his] answer and [the] American [smiled], after it [gave him] 10 hrivnias. [At] this time it was not small money. We need English in all situations in life.”
  • Tanya, on New Year’s in Ukraine: “People believe that all their troubles are left in the previous year and the New Year will bring them hopes and happiness.”
  • Olha tells me the 12 Lenten dishes that Ukrainians make for Christmas Eve dinner: “The main dish is kutia. [Everybody] should try [it]. Also, we cook compote fried fish, meatless borshch, braised cabbage with mushrooms, stuffed cabbage with rice, millet porridge, beet salad, salad with pickled cucumbers, cabbage, and onions, bean cakes, hot spices with crushed garlic, black pepper, dill, tomato paste, and oil, and finish [with] boiled potatoes, lubricants crushed garlic with oil.”
  • Solomia seems conflicted about religion: “I would like to celebrate [Christmas] on December 25. Because Christmas Lent ends after [the] New Year holiday and I don’t want [to] have a big noisy party during Lent. However I don’t really keep Lent, but I think [it’s] very bad [to noisily] celebrate New Year during Lent.”

Christmas Wishes from Ukrainians

I was really surprised this week when almost all of my classes gave me little Christmas gifts — a stocking, pretty bulbs, cute foam snowmen — and wished me well for “my” Christmas (Ukrainians don’t celebrate XMas until 7 January). Even my school director singled me out at the teacher meeting on Friday morning and all the teachers applauded to wish me a Merry Christmas.

My 6th-formers gave me a card with the following message (original spelling & syntax intact):

Dear Ms. Tamila PlaT! 6-B Congratulate you from Chrismas Jsus God! We wish you a merry holy supper, happy holiday and good presend from Santa Clauses! In Christmas in your will many presemt in the stocking wery Beatyful Christmas tree and in your house will sung many carols! Merry Christmas! your 6B class!

They’re still learning…They also sang “Jingle Bells” to me.

But the highlight came at the beginning of the fifth lesson, my last for the day. My 10th-formers were a little late coming in and I suspected they were preparing something since I glimpsed them whispering together outside the classroom. Lo and behold, they sang me a Christmas song medley of “Last Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Then they gave me a lovely gift. I was beaming ear to ear the entire time, my heart overflowing with happiness and love for these people. Video of 10A singing:

Holidays (Свята)

Factoid of the month: Ukrainians love to celebrate. I’ve learned that if I’m invited to a Ukrainian party, I must expect it to be no shorter than four hours long. Takes endurance! That said, I will lead you on a short narrative tour of how Ukrainians spend the end of December.

New Year’s is a big holiday here. It’s like a cross between our (I guess Christian) Christmas and Halloween. During the last week of December at school, all the classes have New Year’s parties, and some perform little plays/fairy tales.

My school’s 5th Form presents a fairy tale for New Year’s

New Year’s is when Ukrainians erect a tree (the “New Year’s Tree,” see the picture of my town’s central tree in a recent post), decorate it, and sometimes put presents under it. New Year’s is also when the Santa equivalent, Дідь Мороз (“didt moroz” = “Father Frost”), and his granddaughter Снігурочка (“snihurochka” = “Snow Maiden”) appear in their festive costumes. I saw three Дідь Мороз and Снігурочка during the week before New Year’s: at the Methodological Cabinet party, at the 5th Form’s fairy tale performance, and at the teachers’ New Year’s party at my school.

Дідь Мороз (Father Frost) played by one of the (female) Ukrainian teachers

Снігурочка (Snow Maiden) played by one of the male teachers

I celebrated New Year’s Eve itself with my counterpart, her husband, and some of their cousins and friends — it’s fun because we’re all in our 20s. It was a low-key celebration, though I was up until 4:40am because we didn’t start celebrating until 11pm!

Ringing in the New Year in style at my counterpart’s house. From L: Vita, friend of Max (neighbor), Sahsa (counterpart’s husband), Pasha (cousin), Yuriy (cousin), Nazar (counterpart’s brother), Misha (cousin), Galyna (counterpart)

January 7th is Ukrainian (Orthodox) Christmas (Різдво). On Jan 6th there is a big feast — traditionally, a “holy supper” of 12 lenten dishes. I was lucky enough to be invited to my counterpart’s house for the Christmas Eve feast, where I joined her family, husband, a few grandparents, and aunts/uncles/cousins who appeared later. My counterpart’s family isn’t so strict with the food, but she says in villages the people stick to the customs more. You can read about the traditional Ukrainian Christmas here. We did have a few of the traditional dishes: вареники (“varenyky,” stuffed dumplings I’ve talked about before), голубці (“holubtsi,” stuffed cabbage rolls which I really love), and кутя (a sort of porridge of wheat, honey, poppy seeds, and nuts, which we had to eat before anything else).

Christmas Eve feast!

The evening was great fun, and I got to practice my Ukrainian, which has gotten a bit rusty since stopping 4-hour language lessons after training. At one point one of my counterpart’s uncles tried to give me a patronymic name. Here, everyone has a patronymic name, which is formed with the father’s first name and a gender-specific ending. It’s respectful to call anyone not a close friend or family member by their first name and patronymic. For example, all teachers go by their name and patronymic to their pupils (and colleagues, when in the presence of pupils). My counterpart is Галина Андріївна (Halyna Andriyivna), because her father’s name is Andriy. So this uncle asked me what my father’s name is: Terry, which in Ukrainian is Тарас (Taras). My first name is close to the Ukrainian name Таміла (Tameela), so he christened me Таміла Тарасівна (“Tameela Tarasivna”), and proceeded to just call me Тарасівна for the rest of the evening. Pretty hilarious.

I start teaching next week, so more posts are coming your way! Thank you to everyone who sent me holiday cards — I’ve set them up by my little Christmas tree and smile every time I walk by.

Thanks for the holiday cards!

Peace,

T.

‘Tis the season…

…to be jolly, falalalala lalalala! ‘Tis the season to give to others: money, gifts, hugs, kisses, love, thanks, or just kind thoughts. ‘Tis the season to celebrate: holidays, love, life. ‘Tis the season to reflect: on what we are thankful for, why we do what we do, or what we want to accomplish over the next year. Really, all of the above should happen year-round. But life gets away from us, and the winter holidays (really starting with Thanksgiving, but culminating for us Americans at New Year’s) are often the only time people step back to take a deep breath and look both back and forward as the year draws to a close and a new one begins.

Ukrainians love holidays (свята), both in the sense of celebrations and vacation time. By the end of this week I will have attended at least four parties. 1) For American Christmas (Ukrainians celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on 7 January), six of my “link family” — the people I trained with — came to my apartment for a Christmas slumber party. We cooked dinner, played cards (a Ukrainian game called дурок [“du-rok”], which means fool), talked, watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, and generally relaxed and enjoyed each others’ company. It was a really lovely evening, and the next best thing to being with my real family. I’m thankful to have such great link-mates — we all get along and each person brings something interesting to the table.

Christmas dinner: beet/carrot salad, cabbage/carrot salad, Michelle’s Texan fried chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, and plenty of cookies.

Link Family Christmas! From L, back row: Phillip, Andy, Andrew C.; front row: me, Kate, Michelle, Janira; missing: Chris, Andrew G., James

And that was only the beginning. Today (Monday), Janira — my cluster-mate who lives in the village 3km from my town — and I sat through a 2.5-hour presentation/celebration for the Methodological Cabinet’s “Teacher of the Year” awards. One of the women who works at the Method-Cab also teaches some English at my school, so she invited us. Janira’s counterpart was also in the running for German Teacher of the Year — and she won! The Method-Cab holds competitions in five subjects every year, all of which culminate in this lovely event. This year’s awards were for teachers of history, world literature, German, art, and primary school. The celebration also incorporates the New Year, so there were various performances amidst lots of speeches.

Winners of the Sniatyns’ky Region Methodological Cabinet “Teacher of the Year” Awards — Janira’s counterpart, Oksana, is second from the right

From L: Janira, the director of the Methodological Cabinet, me, Natalia Mykhailyvna (works at the Method-Cab and teaches English at my school)

Celebrations still to come: my counterpart’s husband’s birthday party (Wednesday), and the teachers’ New Year’s party at my school (Thursday). I will also likely do something for New Year’s — I guess the town goes out to the central square near midnight to be together near the New Year’s tree. Since I can’t be home for the holidays, being in Ukraine is a pretty great substitute, since these people love to include everyone in their celebrations. Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy New Year.

Peace,

T.

Sniatyn New Years’ Tree

My little Christmas tree! (It’s just a bundle of branches tied together to make a tree — tons are sold at the bazaar for only 6,00 UAH)