How To Make Lithuanian Straw Ornaments

As promised, here are steps to make a very basic Lithuanian straw ornament with a four-sided base (šiaudinukas).

himmeli
Okay, these are made from copper tubing, not straw. But the steps are the same!

We are going to use paper straw instead of the traditional rye straw because it’s easier to work with and easier to find, and we’re going to use fishing line instead of thread because when you use fishing line, you don’t need a needle.

Supplies:

  • White paper art straws (you could use plastic as well, but I would judge you)
  • Clear monofilament fishing line (not braided)
  • Ruler
  • Scissors

First, cut twelve pieces of straw so that they are all equal lengths. I recommend anywhere between two to four inches per piece for this first attempt. Be very precise in your measurements because even small differences in length can make the final product lop-sided.

Now cut about and arm’s length of fishing line and string four of the straws onto it, threading them to almost the very end of the line.

Bring the two loose ends of fishing line together and tie them in a knot so that the four straws you strung on the line form a square. From now on, we’re going to call this our “foundation square.”

square

Tuck the short end of the fishing line into one of the straws in the foundation square to hide it.

Now string two more straws onto the long end of the fishing line and tie a knot at one of the corners of your foundation square so that your shape looks like a house with a roof:

house

From now on, we are going to call that roof part an “ear.” (Just go with it.)

Tie another ear onto your foundation square by stringing two more straws onto the end of the fishing line and tying a knot at the next corner of the foundation square. Your shape should look like this:

cat ears

Repeat this process until your foundation square has four “ears.”

IMG_7399
A foundation square with four “ears.”

(When you run out of fishing line, just tie more on making sure to hide the knot you use to secure it within one of the straws.)

When you have four ears around your foundation square, run the fishing line up through one of the ears so that it comes out through the pointy end.

Then tie the ear out of which the fishing line is protruding to the ear opposite from it to form a pyramid. Your shape should look like this:

pyramid

Now thread the end of the fishing line back down to one of the corners of your foundation square and through one of the remaining “loose” ears.

Tie the ear out of which the fishing line is protruding to the ear opposite from it. Your shape should look like this:

IMG_7402

Cute, but not very exciting, is it? This form is the basic building block that, once mastered, makes creating elaborate variations possible. Here are some simple ways to add interest to a basic four-sided ornament:

Use longer straws for two of the four sets of ears:

Use longer straws fro two of the four sets of "ears" to make a teardrop shape. (This is an ornament I made using brass straws.)
Use longer straws for two of the four sets of “ears” to make a teardrop shape. (This is an ornament I made using copper straws.)

Nest a smaller ornament inside a larger one:

Here's a small three-sided ornament nested within a larger one.
Here’s a small three-sided ornament nested within a larger one.

Hang a smaller ornament to the end of a larger one:

An ornament I made using copper straws and pieces of amber.
An ornament I made using copper straws and pieces of amber.

Or use longer straws for the foundation square and shorter straws for the ears:

himmeli ornament closeup 4

You can also hang smaller ornaments from the corners of a larger one:

IMG_6120

The instructions I’ve provided are for making ornaments using a four-sided foundation square, but more elaborate ornaments can be made by making the foundation square five, six, seven, and even eight sided. Alternately, a simple triangle/pyramid shaped ornament can be made using a three-sided foundation.

Good luck.

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Posted in Christmas, crafting, decorating, Lithuania, Lithuania, Lithuanian traditions, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Come Swing from my Sodas

This year the P-Dawg and I are hosting Kūčios, the traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve meal, and one tradition I really want to incorporate is the hanging of a sodas - a large geometric straw ornament – over the table where we will eat our meal (which will consist of twelve cold, vegetarian dishes made from ingredients readily available to the ancient Balts in midwinter, which is to say fish, nuts, berries, mushrooms, beetroot, and potatoes.)

Small straw ornaments have been popular in Baltic and Nordic countries for a long time as tree decorations, but what I’m talking about is a construct so ginormous and elaborate that it could knock over a small child (if it wasn’t made out of straw.)

Here is a Sodas we saw in Vilnius last year
A Sodas we saw in Vilnius last year

Sodai, or “gardens,” were geometric ornaments made from the rye straw that was so readily available in the farming culture of Lithuania, and hung over the table where the family gathered for Kūčios. Though pretty to look at, sodai were also rife with meaning. I probably don’t even have to tell you that the larger your sodas, the better the next year’s crop and the more prosperous your farm. But a lesser known fact about sodai is that they were a symbolic link between the heavens and earth (the Finnish and Swedish word for them – himmeli - is derived from the word “sky” or “heaven.”)

Those of you who read my original post about Lithuanian Christmas Eve traditions will know that in Lithuania, the heavens and earth mingle on Christmas Eve. On this night, not only do we remember our dead, but we also set a symbolic place for them at the table. According to master sodas weaver Marija Liugienė of Vilnius, the sodas must have a very specific shape that includes a pinpoint at the top to channel energy from heaven and a pinpoint at the bottom to pass it down to earth. In her estimation, the properly constructed three tiered sodas is a close approximation of the Tree of Life. And Mrs. Liugienė is not impressed with the recent trend in making sodai all willy-nilly, like in a decahedron. These, she contends, are not true sodai, but just ornamentation, and Design Sponge, Anthropologie, and Apartment Therapy can all take their decahedron sodai and shove them.*

It is imperative that the sodas have natural perpetual motion when hung. Some sources say this is so that spirits would not get trapped inside, others say the motion is a natural result of the spirits having a good time swinging from the sodas. If the sodas I made does not swing naturally, I am just going to have to blast a fan at it during our Kūčios meal. And speaking of the sodas I made, I have to tell you I’m not sure that Mrs. Liugienė would 100% approve of it because although it does have points at both the top and the bottom, it is a far, far, cry from the elaborate sodai that the ancient Lithuanians and some current ones made.

Look, I don't have time to make a sodas with five hundred equilateral pyramids. I still have to roast five pounds of beets and peel just as many potatoes.
Look, I don’t have time to make a sodas with three hundred equilateral pyramids. I still have to roast five pounds of beets and peel ten pounds of potatoes.

My sodas is not made from natural rye straw, but from white paper art straws that I ordered from Amazondotcom. I have made straw ornaments from actual straw in the past and for the most part it has been a disaster because I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but real straw is quite brittle and not particularly conducive to being cut into equal parts with a pair of child safety scissors wielded by a lefty.

In my next post I will show you how to make a basic Lithuanian straw ornament, and that is not an empty promise.

* She didn’t really say that.

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Posted in Christmas, Lithuania, Lithuania, Lithuanian traditions | 1 Comment

Kitschy, Kitschy Kristmas

If you are looking for a totally over the top, Hollywood nostalgia themed indoor Christmas extravaganza and can get past the fact that it is staged within a former church building, then have I got the place for you!

Castle Noel in Medina, Ohio is the brainchild and all-consuming passion of one Mark Klaus (real name). Mister Klaus bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Santa himself and he really, really loves Christmas.

He has turned the former Medina United Methodist Church and its adjacent buildings into what is nebulously billed as “America’s Largest Indoor Christmas Entertainment Attraction,” full of vintage toys, holiday window displays from New York department stores, and props and costumes from Hollywood Christmas movie sets.

The tagline would almost be comical, if it weren’t so appropriate. Because Castle Noel is kind of a museum, but also kind of an amusement park (if you count the giant slide down “Santa Claus Mountain” and the walk through the polar vortex and the squeeze through the simulated chimney.) And starting in January of 2015, it will also feature a miniature golf course.

I don’t want to give too much away, but inside Castle Noel you can see cousin Eddy’s RV from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Will Ferrell’s Elf costume, and Tim Allen’s head.

This Year's Christmas card. Better with red eye!
Totally Unedited
Will Farrell's Elf costume. Really not that impressive without Will Farrel filling it out.
The Elf costume. Not that impressive without Will Ferrell to fill it out.
Tim Allen's Head
Tim Allen’s Head

I really liked the animated window displays from Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and Lord & Taylor, and though they were not as magical as I remembered holiday window displays being, I could see, watching my own kids take them in, that they are still amazing through the eyes of a child.

Moulin Rouge Window Display
Moulin Rouge Window Display

But I think my favorite part of the whole deal was the “restoration room,” where piles of old costumes and movie props await their turn to shine.

Restoration Area Doll

Restoration Area Headless
Something very bad happened to this elf.

IMG_7325

 Headless bodies and bodiless heads seem to be a recurring theme at Castle Noel.

Even though I just recently dismounted from my “Christmas can be secular” soapbox, I will say that it felt a little weird to walk through the displays that are in what obviously used to be the chapel and main sanctuary. Just something a bit unsettling about sitting in a church pew watching clips of vintage Hollywood Christmas specials while fake snow sprays from overhead nozzles. Or, for that matter, about sliding down Santa Claus Mountain with a view of a stained glass window that has been covered over with glitter paper in shades of Whoville pink and green.

If you live in Northeast Ohio and decide to go to Castle Noel, I recommend making an advance reservation for a guided tour slot through their website. Castle Noel is, after all, “America’s Largest Indoor Christmas Entertainment Attraction.”

Christmas Mountain Santa Photo Op and Slide
You can slide down Santa Claus Mountain just like Ralphie in the Christmas Story! I think this is where the pulpit used to be.
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Peeps Need Feasts

thebirdAs a Christian, I have a real problem with people wishing each other “Happy Holidays” this time of year.

Because what we should really be doing is slapping each other on the backs for making it around the sun one more time again. This, after all, is what was originally celebrated around December 25th, by pagans the world over, on the winter solstice.

I observe Christmas and all other Catholic holidays (except occasionally New Year’s Day/the Solemnity of Mary, because if we’re honest, didn’t the Church tack that on as a holy day of obligation simply to force hungover people to attend Mass?)

I believe that the Messiah’s arrival on earth as human flesh is well worth celebrating, and I understand that December 25th happens to be the date on the Liturgical Calendar set aside for this purpose. But I also understand that, by most accounts*, the Catholic church hijacked December 25th from ye merry pagans, who had been celebrating the winter solstice and the feast of the sun god thereabouts for thousands of years.

And who can blame it? If you want people to embrace the new religion, you can’t completely pull the rug out from underneath them by abolishing all the old feasts and ways. You have to offer a replacement rug – just as beautiful and enticing, and you have to put it in the same place of prominence in the foyer that the former one held. This phenomenon is well-known in my ancestral homeland of Lithuania, where almost all the major pagan holidays were replaced by Christian ones.

Christmas, my fair Christians, is your replacement rug, selected centuries ago to make the transition to Christianity just a bit easier to palate. And if guys like Origen would have had their way, Christ’s birth may not have been a holiday at all. That doesn’t make it any less holy, and it doesn’t make what we as Christians celebrate on December 25th any less important. But when we start working ourselves into a tizzy over the semantics of  “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas,” we must remember that December 25th was never ours to begin with.

We must remember that we are lucky in America to celebrate Christmas, or any other feast we can conjure.

We must remember that when we say “Happy Holidays,” rather than spitting directly in Jesus’ eye, we are literally wishing somebody a series of happy, holy days.

We must remember that never in the history of social media has a non-believer come across a grammatically incorrect Facebook post complete with a poorly Photoshopped picture of Jesus lamenting the secularization of his arbitrary birthdate and said to himself, “By God! I was wrong.”

And we must remember that just because a person hasn’t accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior doesn’t mean he can’t rig up a fir tree in his living room and drink booze with raw eggs in it. It is dark and we are cold.

I am sorry, my fair and gentle Christians. But in the grand scheme of things, we don’t have the patent, or even the movie rights, to December 25th.

Nevertheless, I like to think of Christmas in the terms that a fourth century bishop stated when he said of it, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

 

*I did a bit of recherche on l’Internet and found out that besides the school of thought that believes the December 25th date was based on the Roman feast of the sun god and the winter solstice, there is another that proposes December 25th was selected for being exactly nine months after the date when Jesus was allegedly conceived (March 25th on the ancient Roman calendar – the Feast of the Annunciation).  How they figured this out is a great mystery to me, but it’s all tied in to the fact that March 25th was the pretty historically accurate date when Jesus was believed to have been crucified, and it was important for the Church to link the concepts of creation (the birth) and redemption (the dying and resurrection).

 

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