Category Archives: Christmas

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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Come Swing from my Sodas

This year the P-Dawg and I are hosting K??ios, 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 K??ios. 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 Liugien? 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. Liugien? 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 K??ios meal. And speaking of the sodas I made, I have to tell you I’m not sure that Mrs. Liugien? 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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The Chill Pills Are Working

Last year, I got a bee in my bonnet about having a perfectly matched Christmas tree. I excommunicated all the tattered and handmade ornaments to a mini tree which I relegated to the sunroom, and informed the family that only the pre-designated red and gold ornaments could be hung on the official Christmas tree.

I then tried to sell the mini tree to my offspring as a very special tree they could decorate in any way they pleased (even though I snuck back during the dead of night to re-arrange their handiwork), but they saw right through the chicanery. One child was so upset that she did not come out of her room for two hours. I recognized the folly of my ways eventually, but not before ruining Christmas Decorating Day and creating traumatic memories that my children will need years of therapy to work through

That’s why last weekend, before we hauled out all the Christmas stuff, the P-Dawg said, “Are you going to do that thing again where you don’t let the kids put up their favorite ornaments?”

“Of course not. I made a mistake last year. They can hang any ornament anywhere and any which way they like.”

When we hauled out the boxes, my daughter approached me and asked very timidly, “Mama, which ornaments are we allowed to put on the tree?”

It was then that the shriveled up husk I call a heart disintegrated altogether.

“There are no restrictions on ornament placement this year,” I told her. I’m sorry I was such a jerk.

Then I sat back and watched them go to town. What’s more, I was able to restrain myself from moving even one single ornament from the branch it was clustered on with three or five of its low hanging friends.

And I’ll let you in on another secret: When I put up the banister garland, I did not loop it around the rungs using a precise, mathematical pattern as I have done in the past. In some places, garland is bunched together and in other places it’s spread out. Also,  there is about three feet of garland with malfunctioning lights right in the middle of the whole she-bang, which I’m choosing to pretend does not exist.

As a casual observer you may not even notice this, but for me it’s a personal victory. One which I tend to perseverate on when I wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden urge to re-hang the banister garland, but a victory nevertheless.

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Dining With the Dead: Lithuanian Christmas Eve Traditions

Šližikai (Poppyseed Biscuits)

The traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner is called “K??ios” (Koo-chos) and it’s one of the most important holidays of the year. Like most Christian holidays, it used to be a pagan feast marking the winter solstice and as such, it was fraught with ritual and superstition. The main focus was always family unity and so it was paramount that, come hell or high water, every member return to the ancestral home for the K??ios meal.

And when the Lithuanians said “everybody,” they meant everybody. My people believed that the souls of dead ancestors returned to be with their loved ones on Christmas Eve night. According to some accounts, before the meal began, the head of the household would quite literally open the front door to invite the ethereal posse inside. If a family member had died in the preceding year, a place would be set for them at the table. In one region of Lithuania, a glass of mead or beer was also set for the dead person and I mention this only because my family swears up and down that K??ios is supposed to be a non-alcoholic meal.

Beet Salad

K??ios was also a night dedicated to forecasting and soothsaying, and a main obsession seems to have been divining one’s future in fortune and love. Various games were played and rituals were performed to ensure a good crop and healthy animals, not the least of which involved tying a chicken and a rooster together by their tails and seeing which one dragged the other one where.

My family celebrates K??ios, but like most Lithuanians nowadays, we stick with more basic traditions like twelve cold, meatless dishes (e.g., smoked eel and salmon, pickled herring, marinated mushrooms, beet salad, cranberry pudding, poppyseed biscuits in poppyseed milk). We still pass the plotkel? wafer around from the oldest to the youngest member of the family until everyone has broken from everyone else’s bread. One year we gazed for fortunes in hot melted wax and hid straws under the tablecloth which were later pulled to forecast who would have the longest life.

Dead Ancestor

Now that Vija and Jonas are approaching the age of reason, it’s becoming increasingly important to me to drive these traditions home so that many years from now, when they’re sitting down to Beef Wellington with a nice Rhone red for Christmas Eve dinner, they’ll be overcome with guilt at the sight of my disapproving specter materializing before them and say, “Screw it! Let’s just have cold marinated fish and Vernors.”

To this end, I went online to research some of the more interesting K??ios traditions we could incorporate into our meal this year.

Here are the ones that won’t be making the cut:

  • “On this day stroke the cows, so that they will be fat and have no pustules.”
  • “If you want your horses to be good-looking, steal manure from your neighbor and feed it to your horses.”
  • “Young men and women, wishing to find out who will be their mate, when casting lots take two candles, a towel and a mirror to an uninhabited house. The candles are lit and placed near the mirror. Wiping moisture from the mirror with the towel, they would see their future mate. Worthy of attention in magic rituals’ execution is total nudity.”
  • “After supper, the girl should climb up into the attic, undress and walk three times around the chimney, then in total darkness she will see the young man she will marry. “

Merry Christmas, everybody! May your horses be good-looking and your cows fat with no pustules!

Source: http://ausis.gf.vu.lt/eka/customs/christmas.html

Images courtesy of Google Images.

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