Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago does an amazing Christmas tree display every year, featuring trees decorated in styles unique to many different countries around the world, from every continent save Antarctica. It’s been maybe…20 years?…since I last saw it, so I was really excited to see how it had changed. Now, my memories are pretty fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure the exhibit is much larger than it used to be, and it was a lot of fun to go through it, and see how different cultures celebrate Christmas and other winter holidays!

This doesn’t cover every tree in the display (I think maybe I have photos of about half of them), and also doesn’t cover the displays featuring holidays such as Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, because they were in glass cases that were very hard to photograph with all of the lights reflecting off of them. I did also include examples of some of the displays that were included beneath the trees, which was a very nice touch, as well as the signs that accompany them. With one exception, I included only one photo from each tree. It was impossible to keep track of which tree went with which country, so you can try to figure that out on your own!

The grand tree in the center of the exhibit was an unbelievable sight!

And a bonus picture of the Pioneer Zephyr, all decked out for the holidays!

I’m so happy I got a chance to see this display again, and even happier that I got to share it with the Fab Five…we all learned so many things about how Christmas is celebrated around the world!

2015-16 School Year–Week Thirteen

This was a pretty light week of school. I decided not to start anything new in math, so our main focus this week was language arts…spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and reading. We also did a little science. We watched several productions of the Nutcracker, as always, as well as The Seasoned Traveler: Christmas Markets and Rick Steves’ European Christmas. We also continued our annual read-through of A Christmas Carol…We still have to read the last chapter, but we got through more than I was expecting after having been sick last week!

As always, we made Christmas ornaments this week. This year, we finally made the floor wax/glitter ornaments that I’ve been looking forward to making. They’re so beautiful…I love the way they look in the lights from the Christmas tree!


This year, for Christmas Around the World, we learned about Christmas in Poland. We read a fun book, Marta and the Manger Straw. We also had a Polish meal…kielbasa, homemade pierogis, sauerkraut, and kolache cookies for dessert. It was a very popular meal!

We still have a few things to wrap up next week (finishing A Christmas Carol, another craft, and maybe learning about Christmas in one more country), but other than that, we’re done until 2016. Merry Christmas!

2013-14 School Year–Week Sixteen

I gave up trying to do our regular school work plus Christmas School. With everything else I needed to do this week (including some shopping and baking 15 dozen cookies for the church cookie walk), and an illness that just wont go away, it just wasn’t happening. So, we did religion and math as usual, and the rest of our days were filled with Christmas School. I can’t say that anyone minded too much!

This week, we learned about Christmas in Russia/Ukraine and Sweden. We had one craft (ornaments telling the Ukrainian legend of tinsel), and a special baked good (Lussekattes, in honor of Santa Lucia Day today). We also read some short stories from both Russia and Scandinavia, as well as the story of Lucia, and learned about the different traditions of those countries. Next week, we’ll finish up with a little more on Christmas in Germany, as well as in France.


We also spent the week on the Nutcracker. In the past, we’ve had a Nutcracker day, where we watched one or two productions of the ballet, and read the story. This year, however, I’ve expanded our collection to four different productions, so we watched one each day, and then read the story on the fifth day. It’s endlessly fascinating comparing and contrasting the different interpretations of the story. I still have a favorite–the San Francisco Ballet–but I’ve come to appreciate elements from the Bolshoi, Dutch National, and Royal Ballets, as well.

Looking forward to only having one more week of school before our Christmas vacation…between sickness and busyness, I need a mental break!

Christmas School 2013

I guess I haven’t really mentioned our plans for Christmas School this year, have I? We’re back to “Christmas Around the World,” after two years focusing on Christmas through American history, and Christmas in England, respectively. I chose five countries to study this year: Germany, Greece, Russia/The Ukraine, Sweden, and France. My Celebrate Christmas Around the World teacher resource book has been, as always, a great help in planning our lessons!

We always focus on Germany when we learn about different Christmas customs, because so many of our traditions originate from that country. I chose Greece again this year because we’ve been learning about the ancient Greeks and Greek mythology in our regular studies (plus, it tied in nicely with the commemoration of St. Nicholas). We’ll be learning about Christmas in Russia (and Ukraine, by extension), as a lead-in to our Olympics studies in February. Bunny wanted to learn about Christmas in Sweden again this year, so she could be Santa Lucia, and since it’s been a few years, I thought it would be fun to do that again. And I asked Turkey what country he’d like to learn about, and he chose France, which we really haven’t focused on before. Here’s a brief rundown of the activities I have planned for each country (please bear in mind that we’ve already completed some of these activities since I got such a late start on blogging about it)–stories, music, and a craft or baking project (and, of course we’ll be learning the Christmas greeting in each country’s native language, as well as a general overview of what their celebrations and traditions look like!):

Germany–Frohliche Weihnachten!

Greece–Kalá Christoúgenna!

Russia/Ukraine–Hristos Razdajetsja!

Sweden/Scandinavia–God Jul!

France–Joyeux Noël!

In addition to learning about these countries, we’ll have our standard Nutcracker Day (I know have four different ballet company’s interpretations of this Christmas standard!), and our Christmas in Italy Day, which has also become a tradition. We may also read A Christmas Carol out loud if there’s time, because it’s also a favorite. I have a few field trips planned (one of which we’ve already been on), and possibly some other special events. I love planning for school at this time of year!

The Legend of the First Tinsel

Today in school, we learned about Christmas in Russia (which involved watching the Bolshoi Ballet Nutcracker), and Ukraine. Part of learning about Christmas in Ukraine including reading the Ukrainian version of the legend of the first Christmas tinsel. To go along with the story, we made these cute ornaments…they were a lot of fun!


Another Christmas Dinner

On Christmas Eve, we had our traditional dinner of appetizers, dips, and desserts. Christmas Day ended being a little funky, meal-wise, so we ordered pizzas. Our big, fancy Christmas dinner was finally enjoyed today! I chose an English theme (since this has been a major “Rule Britannia” year for us), and the menu I settled up on included roast beef, brussels sprouts (a very important Christmas dinner staple in England), roast carrots and potatoes, cranberries, and, for dessert, a French cake popular in England, the Bûche de Noël or Yule Log Cake. We also enjoyed drinking wassail, which is another of our regular family Christmas traditions, but fit in nicely with the theme for the day!

Wassail, hot out of the pot:


Standing rib roast with a rosemary-garlic rub, served with a horseradish cream sauce:


A trio of roast vegetables–brussels sprouts, carrots, and potatoes:


Spiced cranberries:


The feast:


The table:



Christmas Crackers:


In addition to a paper hat, everyone’s Christmas Cracker came with a toy:


As well a joke:


The Bûche de Noël:


Happy Christmas!

Christmas School 2012–Christmas in England

As I mentioned in this year’s Christmas School reading list, our focus this year is on Christmas in England. Our main read-aloud is, of course, A Christmas Carol. In addition to that, I’ve divided our studies up into six basic sections:

  • Christmas in Elizabethan England–This was a tough era to cover, mainly because I couldn’t find a whole lot of information on it. Shakespeare made only a few passing references to Christmas, from what I could find, and they weren’t particularly happy references. I decided that the focus of this lesson would be on the Boar’s Head Festival, since the festival would have been fairly well established by that time. It also ties in well to the festival we attended this year, and we can even use the programs from that festival to guide our discussion of the different parts of the event, in particular, the “Boar’s Head Carol,” as well as “Good King Wenceslas.”
  • A Georgian/Colonial Christmas–In contrast, this is an easy period of time to cover, especially following last year’s “Christmas in American History” lessons. We won’t be looking specifically at England for this lesson, but at how English colonists might have celebrated Christmas in their new homes. The beginning part of Christmas in Williamsburg does and excellent job of showing what an English-American Christmas was like.
  • A Victorian Christmas–There’s so much information here, it’s hard to know where to start! The focus of this lesson, though, will be on the traditions that we still have today that are a reflection of the Victoria era, like decorating Christmas trees, and lavish gift giving. The central focus of this day will be A Christmas Carol, of course, as it’s the perfect Victoria Christmas story. While we’re taking all of our Christmas School this year to read it, we’ll be watching our favorite film version of the story that day (the Muppet version, if you’re wondering!).
  • An Edwardian Christmas–This was the other time period that was a bit of a struggle, because it’s really a short amount of time, and it’s not that different from the Victorian era. The only reason I even made it its own topic was because I found a lovely picture book at the library entitled An Edwardian Christmas. This is the same day we’ll be learning about St. Lucia, though, so it’s OK that we’re a little light on Christmas in England that day!
  • Wartime Christmas–We’ll be looking at Christmas in England during both World Wars…not only directly war-related events (Christmas in the Trenches, the story of the “Silent Night Truce”), but works that were written during, and possibly influenced by, the wars (Letters from Father Christmas and A Child’s Christmas in Wales). Even though we’ll be delving into Santa territory with the Tolkien book, this is especially timely, as Turkey and Bunny have both recently read The Hobbit, and Ryan is reading The Fellowship of the Ring as a family read-aloud in the evenings.
  • Christmas in Modern England–In addition to watching a few of the Queen’s recent Christmas messages, we’ll also be reading a Christmas story starring a favorite character in English children’s books–The Jolly Postman. While I don’t like to bring Santa into our house too much, I like this book because it does introduce a modern British storybook, and because the Jolly Postman stories are clever and well-written.

In addition to these time periods, we’ll also be learning about some Christmas legends from the U.K., including a story from Ireland, and the legend of the robin, which may or may not be English in origin, but is a popular story in that country. We’ll also be looking at and listening to some English Christmas carols. (We will be doing crafts, as always–they just don’t really have anything to do with Christmas in England!) And, of course, we love any excuse to have a tea party, so this time around, we’ll be having a Christmas tea, complete with Christmas cookies, holiday jam on English muffins, and ginger tea.

This will bring a nice end to the very British year we’ve had…then again, we have the birth of the new royal to look forward to next year, so maybe the fun doesn’t have to end!

What We’re Reading–Christmas 2012–Christmas in England

Last year, I shared a list of books we’d be using in “Christmas School.” Some of those books won’t be repeated this year (especially anything American Santa heavy), as the theme is different, and I’ve also added a few books, mainly to go along with this year’s focus on Christmas in England:

  • Letters from Father Christmas–Yes, it’s a Santa book, but it’s also something of a Tolkien classic, and quite timely, as Turkey and Bunny have both recently read The Hobbit.
  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales–This classic will be added to our permanent collection.
  • The Christmas Bird–I haven’t been able to determine if this legend originated in England, or if it’s just popular there, but robins at Christmastime appear to be a British custom.
  • An Edwardian Christmas–This is a tiny little picture book, but the pictures are beautiful, and show what Christmas was like in England at that time.
  • The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems
  • Father Christmas and the Donkey
  • Victorian Christmas–Technically, this book is about Christmas in America, but it shows how England influenced American Christmas celebrations, so decided to include it.
  • Christmas in England
  • A Christmas Carol–A classic that’s been in our family library for years, but is especially appropriate for this year’s English Christmas theme…it will be our main read-aloud.
  • A Christmas Dinner–Another Christmas book by Charles Dickens
  • The Jolly Christmas Postman–Another Santa book, but the Jolly Postman seems to be very popular in England, so it must be included.
  • Christmas in the Trenches–This book was already in our library, but as it focuses on the temporary truce between British and German soldiers during WWI, it has a special place in school this year.
  • The Lion Storyteller Christmas Book–While this anthology has stories from all over the world, it’s printed by a British publisher, so I thought it fit the year’s theme.
  • The Christmas Tale of Peter Rabbit–Not written by Beatrix Potter herself, but inspired by her farm.
  • How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas–Even though this series is about the origin of the Santa stories, I really like the books. This one focuses primarily on the Puritans in America, as well as the English Parliament’s interference with Christmas celebrations.
  • Christmas in Williamsburg–This is another book that focuses on Christmas in America, but we’ll specifically looking at the colonial period, when America was still under British rule.

We’ll also be using our book basket time to read all of the other many Christmas books we love!

Christmas School–Day Fifteen

Today was the end of Christmas school. One last story to read, a review of the countries we learned about (and all of their varied Christmas traditions), one last project to complete, and the big finale of A Christmas Carol.

Our final Christmas story was from The Kingfisher Book of Classic Christmas Stories called “Christmas Every Day.” This was a cute story in which a child imagined what it would be like if was Christmas Day all year long. The end results of the imagining were not good, and in the end, she realized that the reason Christmas is so special is because it only comes around once a year. As much as I love Christmas, it was a good reminder that like everything, Christmas has its season.

To review our “Christmas Around the World” activities, I started by asking Turkey and Bunny what countries we had learned about. Each time they named one, I asked them how to say Merry Christmas in that country. We then decorated a sign with that saying–using lots of glitter (after all, you can’t have Christmas school without covering everything, including yourself, in copious amounts of glitter at least once!). As we glittered (Turkey and Bunny took turns going over the words I wrote out in pencil), we discussed some of the most notable Christmas traditions of that country. Although we only technically learned about four countries this year, I threw in a bonus question about England, since we’ve been reading A Christmas Carol, and we’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what a traditional English Christmas is like.

Because we did finish A Christmas Carol today, we also got to watch my favorite version of the movie–The Muppet Christmas Carol. I know, I know…the Muppets? And yet, the movie is strangely true to the book, the music is great, plus…well, it’s the Muppets! What’s not to love? I have a few other versions recorded on the DVR that I hope to get to as well, but I had to make sure we saw our favorite, as a reward for us having read the whole book!

I’m always sad when Christmas school ends. So much effort goes into the planning and implementation, starting way back in the summer when I start thinking about which resources I’m going to use, and which I’d like to get, and then the big rush in November and December of choosing crafts, planning field trips, picking which stories to read on which day, deciding which craft goes best with the stories, and figuring out how to break apart our big read-alouds. It should come as no surprise that between school and regular Christmas need-to-dos, I spend much of December completely exhausted! But it’s a good kind of exhaustion, and I wouldn’t trade making these special memories and building holiday traditions for anything!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Christmas School–Day Eleven

God Jul! and Happy St. Lucia Day!

Today we learned all about Christmas in Scandinavia. We found that although there are many common elements to the Christmas season in each Scandinavian country, they each have unique ways of celebrating, as well. Except for Iceland–we didn’t really learn anything in particular about that country at all! One thing we found interesting is the amount of national pride found on Scandinavian Christmas trees. It is common for residents of each country to put a garland of their own national flag on their Christmas tree.

Our big activity for the day was making Lussekattes, which are a sweet bun served on St. Lucia Day in Sweden. I found the recipe in Celebrate Christmas Around the World–I don’t know how authentic that recipe is, but I do know it calls for the three most expensive spices found in the world! (I also learned that World Market is a great place to buy cardamom for cheap.) We actually started on these last night, because they needed almost three hours to rise, plus all the kneading, shaping, and baking time. They were pretty good–tasted a lot like hot cross buns, but drier. The children all liked them pretty well, too, and they had the satisfaction of having helped make them, so it was a good project.

It is tradition for the oldest daughter in the house to serve the breakfast, and Bunny was happy to oblige. We also learned about the real St. Lucia, both legend and fact. The children were already familiar with what the Swedish St. Lucia looks like from seeing her in St. Charles (and from my American Girl doll), and I think Bunny was secretly hoping to wear a crown of candles. There are many stories about acts St. Lucia might have done in the name of the faith, but we mostly focused on the fact that she was a believer who did good works and in the end died for her faith.

We also read another story in The Kingfisher Book of Classic Christmas Stories. This time we read “A Very Big Cat,” which is a funny Norse legend. It involves a hunter, a polar bear, and some dwarves who think the bear is a cat. We read this last year, too, and Turkey and Bunny really liked it, and remembered it better than I did.

To round out our trip through Scandinavia, Turkey and Bunny colored pictures of Christmas celebrations in Denmark and Finland. To try to incorporate Iceland into our discussion a little bit, we also looked at the flags of Scandinavia in the Usborne Flags Book. I got this book to use during our Olympics unit at the beginning of the year, and it’s a fun way to familiarize children with the different flags found around the world. Turkey and Bunny liked comparing the different colors found in all the Scandinavian flags, and also noting that they all have the same cross.