Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and coffee, I stumbled into preschool today with Milo.
Approaching the building we heard the familiar lilt of Jingle Bells…in Spanish. And there she was – a black-clad Elvira-esque character leading the kids in ballet moves. Plie, arms up! On tippy-toes, arms down! Now CORRE CORRE CORRE and stag-leap across the room! One! Two! Three.. Leap! Quatro! Cinco! Seis… Leap! FELIZ NAVIDAD A TODOS! Hooray!!! The room was festooned with garlands and Christmas tree construction paper art and menorahs and hand-turkeys and stars, and looked every bit the global festival.
It struck me that we – here in the city, in 2008 – are wildly lucky to be able to step into a crazy, mixed up scene like this and feel right at home. Our children will feel even more so, as diversity is imprinted in their spongy minds as the natural order of things.
Growing up in a small town in Western Massachusetts in the 70s, my parents and I spoke reverently of “Other Cultures”, for people who lived elsewhere, looked funny, and had strange habits and different languages. Our great hope was that we’d be able to travel to – even to live, for a time in – a Foreign Country, to Learn their Customs. Foreigners were positive, to be sure, like museum pieces to be admired and studied; but I never knew I could really know a kid who wasn’t mostly like me.
Of course I grew up, and traveled, and lived abroad, and forcibly re-programmed myself to approach the world differently. Those early reactions still linger, though. When I travel, it is still with a residual hesitation (Am I going to point my chopsticks the wrong way? Will I shake someone’s hand improperly? Should I bow? Will I stand out more if I dress in their clothes, or mine?)
It is – therefore – with overwhelming pleasure and pride that I watch my 2 year old plie and stage leap and chatter just as easily with his Peruvian friend and the Indian girl, and little Marcello from Italy, and Tumbe from Kenya, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Which it is, really.
The holidays with little ones can be crazy. Just getting presents bought, wrapped and shipped, and Christmas cards out on time can be about all a new mom can handle. And for the past four Christmases our family has been doing the bare minimum to get festive. Only half the decorations come out, very little baking is done and gifts are bought online to save time.
But my oldest is almost five, and this year I decided it was time to start making some memories and teaching Christmas to my kids. It was clear they were understanding more and more about Santa. But I wanted them to get the whole holiday in more than just a commercial context. So that meant a little reflection on my part. What things are important for me to share about this season with preschoolers?
December can be filled with shopping and spending or it can be about savoring the lights, colors, songs, smells and tastes of this month. Because once January and February comes, it continues to be cold and it’s back to business as usual.
I had read in a Wondertime article about a mom who did an activity a day with her kids during Advent in lieu of candy/gifts everyday. We’ve done the candy Advent calendars and still do because it’s just fun to have chocolate, but this year we took our wooden Advent calendar and filled it with fun things for us to do together as a family. Things that, for me, make the season what it is. So here are 24 days of activities:
Make paper snowflakes and decorate the windows
Learn/sing some traditional Christmas carols
Decorate the house with decorations
Make a gingerbread house
Make Christmas cookies for a friend
Celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6)
Decorate the Christmas tree
Read a Christmas classic
Do something nice for someone we don’t know
Look at Christmas lights
Bring food to someone who needs it
Go see The Nutcracker
Celebrate St. Lucia Day (Dec. 13)
Attend a Christmas event
Make popcorn garland
Read the Christmas story
Make hot chocolate
Go ice skating
Watch a Christmas movie
Make a Christmas paper chain and hang it
Hang lights up in the house
Family game night
Buy a toy for a child who doesn’t have one
Unwrap/open one present each
By doing these, our family gets some dedicated time together. But we’ve turned Christmas “chores” into fun activities. I even had them wrapping presents and helping to stamp the Christmas cards.
Celebrating St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day are important for me to incorporate in some way during the season. Saint Nicholas imparts the real Christmas spirit of giving–which is what the season is about. After living in Germany as a child for a while, this became a familiar name, but the tradition has been lost. St. Lucia Day is a Swedish holiday, one we learned about while living there. While not celebrated so much at home anymore (more at school), it’s still a wonderful way to celebrate the season.
We’re less than halfway through the month, but the kids still run to the calendar each morning to see what we’ll be doing for the day.
If you’re looking for a new way to introduce your little citizens to the great big world, a new video series may be just the ticket. The Global Wonders animated series takes kids around the globe exploring cultures throughout the States and abroad, including in Mexico and India. The characters’ play dates feature cultural lessons, language jams, music and even talk about a variety of holidays. It looks like music CDs and videos featuring Italy and China are coming soon. Enjoy world hopping with your little ones and let us know what you think!
One of our writers, Dana Lightstone, mentioned briefly this week a set of great books to talk with your little citizens about culture around the globe. Amy Wilson Sanger’s World Snacks board books include Chaat and Sweets, Mangia! Mangia!, Lets Nosh and Yum Yum Dim Sum. They make great gifts for your kids and for other friends who are raising little citizens. What better way to teach the next generation about the great big world than through fun phrases and pictures of yummy food? Maybe you can even get them excited about joining you at your favorite neighborhood restaurant.
What I’d find in my Christmas stocking every year as a child was often the best gift of all. Santa would fill mine to the brim- where surely the hook was about to give way to the weight of the goodies inside.
I never thought much to what the meaning could be- this tradition celebrated in many American homes every Christmas Eve. I just knew it was magical and exciting.
There is an old European legend about kind Saint Nicholas being sensitive to a family that had been well off but just lost all their money. He heard them crying as he made his rounds bearing gifts- they had nothing to eat or make them happy. There were three daughters and they had no money for dowries to marry be married.
The family was too embarrassed to accept any charity so St. Nicholas saw a different way to bring them gifts. The three daughters had washed their stockings and hung them over their fireplace to dry. In the night, he quietly climbed down the chimney and placed three purses of gold in each of the girl’s stockings that would be enough to marry them off. When the family woke in the morning to find this blessing, they were very thankful to God and the noble St. Nick.
I’ve hung the stockings in our home this year- I have four to be filled now. We’ll leave treats for Santa and his reindeer. And we’ll think of those really in need all over this world. Hoping Santa doesn’t miss a single stocking this year.
Gifts are a great way to teach kids to think with a global perspective. Two gifts really stand out to me as great globally oriented gifts –one that we gave and one that we received.
We recently went to the 2nd birthday party for a friend’s son. On the Evite invitation they asked that instead of gifts guests consider making a donation to an organization called Heifer. When I went onto the organization’s site I saw the great selection of gifts that could be purchased for this organization which aims to relieve hunger and poverty around the world. We chose a portion of a water-buffalo. While my daughter Zoe at 14 months is a little young to understand what she gave to her friend for his birthday over time she will start to understand. The birthday boy received a card with a picture of an animal that described our contribution. The organization describes this and other gifts as the “must-have gift of the year: self-reliance.” How great is that gift?
This gift inspired me: for Zoe’s next birthday and as she gets older and more aware I am going to request that some of her gifts be donations to help Ijot, a children’s library in rural India that I’ve been involved with for years. At some point I plan to bring her to the library to meet the children who use it. Children, libraries, and animals are all things that small children can relate to and for this reason they are great donation gifts for children.
On a lighter note, we have received some great board books about different cuisines by Amy Wilson Sanger. We have one about Indian snack food and one about sushi. These are two of our favorite cuisines and we always take the books with us to the restaurant. Zoe loves to look at the pictures and hear the rhymes about the food that she is going to eat.
Thanksgiving is such an American holiday. And in my travels I have yet to find another celebration that’s really analogous. Interestingly enough, some of my favorite Thanksgivings were the ones spent in other countries with new friends and non Americans. I think Thanksgiving has such a wonderful history to it, and I love to introduce it to people from other places.
Our first Thanksgiving away from home was spent with a Russian family while living in the Middle East. We loved introducing them to the concept and the food. At the time, I was newly pregnant and barely able to stay awake for the feast. Good thing since they left as soon as their six-month old started to melt down. Finding turkeys in the Arabian Gulf can be tricky. They ship them in for the Americans who celebrate the holiday and if you don’t get them in time, they’re gone. I learned then one of the great things about traditional Thanksgiving food is that it can really be found almost anywhere. Stovetop Stuffing may be a bit hard to come by, but I always found the ingredients to make it from scratch. That’s one of the wonderful things about Thanksgiving food, it really is simple food.
The following year, I had a baby and was again newly pregnant. Luckily, I was only responsible for one dish–the turkey! We celebrated with a huge group of friends from the US, Scotland, Egypt and Australia. Everyone brought something from the traditional American Thanksgiving menu—even those unfamiliar with the food. I remember the Egyptian man asking about the origin of this American holiday. Those of us who were American talked about the American Indians and the pilgrims who were celebrating the harvest using our best third-grade Thanksgiving knowledge. Then the conversation transformed into more of the meaning of Thanksgiving for us–to be with those around us and give thanks for the many blessings we do have.
The following year we found ourselves replaying this ritual with a Swedish family. We had just moved to Stockholm and had very few friends around but our neighbors seemed like good people to share this holiday with. I remember my neighbor remarking that Thanksgiving food was one of her favorites–fall comfort food really helped warm up a cold body on a dark Swedish day. In return, we had the chance a month later to experience the Swedish Julbord with them.
This is where I started realizing we should be sharing celebrations with each other–even if they didn’t celebrate it. Holidays and traditions are important to understanding cultures and this, particularly American one, has deep roots in our own history. It’s wonderful to be able to experience a holiday to its fullness when you’re with people who are not familiar with it. We share it with others, and in turn, it reignites the celebration spirit within us.
This past weekend we celebrated Diwali (the Indian new year) in a restaurant in New York with about 50 other adults and numerous children –some Indian, some not. We are not Indian, but I have spent a lot of time in India and speak Hindi and always like to find ways to encourage my daughter Zoe to learn about this amazing part of the world. We often celebrate Indian holidays with our Indian friends, make frequent trips to Queens or uptown for the best Indian food, and we look forward to taking our daughter to India at the first chance that we get.
Diwali is a Hindu festival which is known as the festival of lights and is celebrated with four days of burning lanterns. Diwali celebrates the marriage of the Hindu deities Lakshmi and Vishnu (though there are theories which dispute this origin). In India and Nepal Diwali is a national holiday.
I remember celebrating my first Diwali in India. In the South Indian town that I was living in it was tradition to decorate everything inside and outside of the house –computers, cows, living spaces. Tea lights were set up throughout the home and fireworks went off in the sky for four very noisy days (and nights) as a thank you to the deities for things on earth. Everyone wore new clothes for the holiday and took a bath in the morning before putting on these new clothes.
Today Zoe was dressed in an Indian outfit and ate Indian food while Bollywood music played in the background. She scribbled on coloring books of Hindu deities and lanterns. She loved the food and had a great time playing with the other kids. My hope is that as Zoe grows up Diwali, as well as other Indian holidays and customs, will be something that she recognizes as a familiar and fun celebration that we do every year.
I just came across Language Littles dolls today. What a great idea for raising your little citizens! The dolls say 25 to 30 kid friendly phrases in ten languages. You can buy your little one a Spanish, French, Italian, Russian or even a Greek speaker. If you want to introduce your kid to Spanish, Lizzie can help you out. When you press her right hand she says a series of greetings. Her left hand holds the words for numbers and animals and her knee says “Te Amo.” What a great way to introduce new languages to your little citizens!
A dedicated, long-term Army National Guard soldier, my husband loves the adventure and the challenges he’s found in the experience of serving his country. As his wife and the mother of two young children, I have been relegated to our home for much of this time as a single parent, accepting the vicarious window to the world he provides… but sometimes toting a baby and a backpack for a distant rendezvous with our soldier!
National Guard families do not live on military bases and, as a result, we don’t necessarily live in an environment where there is support or understanding of a lifestyle that regularly pulls families apart and throws them back together.
My main task in raising our little citizens of the world is to create this sense of community for them in the Midwestern college town in which we reside. At the same time, I try to extend this sense of community to the world and explain how, while their dad is not always able to be with us, he is representing us as Americans wherever he goes. His role as a soldier requires that he work closely with soldiers and civilians of other nations, that he is good at both teaching them what he knows and listening to their needs, in order to build a more peaceful world for all of us.
Our kids’ first impressions of the world come from us, their parents. And even when their own feet aren’t touching far-away soil, the impressions their dad shares with them help them understand both the similarities and the differences between people everywhere. Every time we find ourselves “left behind,” we are simultaneously given the opportunity to learn about another corner of the world to which our soldier is flung. Germany, England, Poland, Afghanistan… the list continues to grow.
The trinkets Daddy brings home, the photos, the stories of unique experiences (marching 100 miles with Polish soldiers on an annual pilgrimage, sharing a field breakfast with British soldiers, shopping at a bazaar, and even throwing sandbags along the banks of the Mississippi River in the USA) keeps our children’s eyes wide open. We are reminded constantly that while we all need food, shelter, and clothing, those things come in a huge variety of forms. And being reminded that so many of our counterparts around the world live with far less than we do begets gratitude for our home and simple, but comfortable, life.
At home, I find that there is nothing quite like being a single parent to force one’s wings to stretch. Leisure time may take a backseat for a while, but the qualities of independence, strength, and resourcefulness only grow. Staying close as a separated family takes extraordinary effort, but that pays off in resilience. I have a basket, manila envelope, or box on hand nearly all the time, in which artwork from the kids, mementos of their accomplishments, newspaper clippings, cards, and letters are deposited for Papa; in return, we receive email, phone calls, and occasional packages from him, through which we remember who he is, how much he loves us, and learn about what he’s encountering. We visit the library and attend diverse cultural events on our local university’s campus to learn more about the people and customs of places where Daddy is working. When we have the opportunity to meet somewhere as a family in the middle of a lengthy training or deployment, we are willing and ready to pack a few bags and snacks and print the driving directions or make the plane reservations to make memories for all involved.
When our daughter was nine months old, she and I met her dad in Frankfurt, Germany for a week spent traveling the Romantic Road. The first breads she nibbled were hearty European rolls, given to her at every restaurant (along with the German proclamation “Sie ist laut!”—“She is loud!”—in response to her happy squeals) and she woke with us under eider-downs to the tolling of church bells in small villages. We held her on our shoulders to walk cobbled streets, stopping to let her dip her hands in centuries-old fountains, and I nursed her on a hidden bench in a leafy public garden. The time changes were difficult, but reviving myself with strong, smooth German coffee was a pleasure. Best of all, I found my previous assumptions of Germany as a cold, industrial nation to be unfounded in the warm reception we received as a family vacationing in a place of Old World beauty and impressive efficiency and service.
That spirit of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and grace wherever it may be found provides a foundation for my husband, and for me with our children, to continue our travels, whether independently or together. Perhaps whatever place we find ourselves in will look especially bright when our company is found in its midst.