Icelandic Christmas

Last month, I gave a talk about an Icelandic Christmas at our church’s “Christmas Around the World” event.and thought to share one more post about a country I really enjoyed visiting!

Iceland is really pronounced, (deeper 1st syllable) “EEs-land.” (All the pronunciations in this article are my clumsy attempts to say it as well as I can after listening to the phonetics online.)

It’s a beautiful country! Europe’s largest glacier shares the island with many bubbling hot springs and spouting “GAY-sirs”, where the word geyser was born. It has active volcanoes, like the one no broadcaster can pronounce. You have a choice of where to sink in and relax in the many spectacular geothermal hot pools around the island. The island’s cold running water comes straight from natural springs; hot running water is from the thermal springs, but don’t drink it! Many movies and TV shows have been shot here. Iceland is the only place in the world that you can actually see the collision of BOTH the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates! Iceland’s Thingvellir (THING-vet-lish) National Park is the UNESCO World Heritage site of one of the world’s earliest and longest running parliaments, starting from 930 AD!

When Iceland was settled in the 800s, most residents were pagan, worshipping Norse gods. Their language is almost unchanged from ancient Norse! Before Christianity was introduced, winter solstice celebrations were extravagant events.

When Olaf Tryggvason, a Christian, ascended the throne of Norway in the late 900s, more people in Iceland became Christians. So much so that strong religious differences between the pagans and the Christians stirred up the beginnings of a civil war.

So, in the year 1000, after a meeting of all of Iceland’s leaders, the country’s official religion was declared to be Christianity. Christmas is called, “Yule” or “jYu ol” (“Jol”) in Icelandic. It is not a reference to Christ or the church. It’s a Norse word and existed in Old English as Yule. So, Christmas in Iceland is a mix of Christianity and old Norse traditions with two celebrations – celebrating the birth of Christ and the beginning of the lengthening daylight hours.

Christmas is a serious event. People start decorating as early as October to brighten the increasingly longer nights. They have Christmas markets, even one by an ice skating rink, concerts and Christmas buffets filled with delicious Icelandic Christmas foods!

The whole house is cleaned, everyone gets something new to wear, the best food is purchased, the house is decorated and HUNDREDS of cookies are baked!

Yule time “officially” lasts 13 days, from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, when all Christmas decorations are removed from the streets. Christ’s birth is celebrated December 25th and the Three Wise Men are celebrated on January 6th.

Beginning 13 days BEFORE Christmas, the first of 13 Yule Lads comes down from the mountains. Old folklore says that they were the sons of trolls and each day a different boy would come down to cause trouble. These days, they’re “good” lads that look more like skinny Santa Clauses. Each child puts their best shoe on the windowsill. The lads pass by. If a child was good, a small present like candy, a book or a toy is left. If a child was bad, a rotten potato is left in the shoe.

Another strange, yet popular, tale says that EVERY Icelander MUST receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Lads’ HUGE black cat, known as the Christmas Cat, will wander around the island on Christmas Eve and EAT those who don’t have new clothes!

A much more inviting image than that of a human-eating cat is of a child happily reading a brand new book in a cozy bed. Did you know that 93% of Icelanders will have read at least one book each year? And, one islander in ten will publish a book in their lifetime – fascinating!

The annual Jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood,” is a Christmas tradition that had it’s beginning in World War II. At that time, foreign imports were limited, but paper was plentiful. Nowadays, publishers release a flood of new books right before Christmas and people go bananas! What a beautiful way to spend a quiet Christmas evening, settling down with a good book!

On Dec. 23rd, three things occur:

1) It used to be a religious day. That’s when Saint Thorlac (Tour-r-r Lack), the patron saint of Iceland, died. Now, it’s traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year and has become the “last-minute-shopping-like-crazy” day! Icelanders spend the evening in the city, and shops and cafes stay open late.

2) In (R-r-rAY-gya-veek) Reykjavik, the country’s capital, the annual peace walk goes down the main shopping street with marchers carrying torches.

3) And, it’s when many families make and eat skata (SKAH-ta). It’s a dish made from a member of the shark family that looks more like a stingray. Much like Asia’s stinky tofu and durian, it has an overwhelmingly foul odor. Skata smells like something is rotting, although it’s only fermented. This is usually the only day it’s eaten ALL year because the disgusting smell is so strong that if you’ve been cooking or eating a lot of it, it gets into your clothes and stays with you!

Cemeteries are often decorated with Christmas lights! The Christmas, or Yule tree, is usually decorated early Christmas Eve. Originally, decorations included candles, fruit and popcorn or cranberry garlands. Nowadays, a star or crown will top the tree, and the Icelandic Flag is often used as a decoration, along with garlands, lights and more decorations.

A popular Christmas side dish is laufabrano (LAY va bredt) meaning leaf bread, which are wafer-thin rounds of wheat dough cut into delicate patterns and quick fried. (The bread goes back at least to the 1700s.) Early December, the whole family, even the men, get together to make the bread so that it can be enjoyed with the Christmas meal. Nowhere else in the world does anyone make such unique “breads.”

A simple Christmas meal also includes lamb, often smoked, red cabbage and boiled potatoes. The Christmas cake, jolakaka, has raisins in it.

Another unusual tradition is that on Christmas Eve, at 6pm, Christmas Day starts!

After dinner, presents are taken from under the Christmas tree and opened. Some will leave their cozy warm houses to go to church. It is like a typical American family holiday. People eat at home, play board games and snuggle under blankets watching Christmas movies. Christmas Day, December 25th, people visit family. The day after, Boxing Day, involves going to MORE family gatherings.

Years ago, TVs would be turned off on Christmas between 5p and 10pm, to focus on Christmas activities, but that’s no longer the case. Still, there’s no public dancing or entertainment on the 24th and 25th. It’s family time. This is Iceland’s longest holiday – everything is closed from noon on Christmas Eve until Dec. 27!

The Aurora Borealis often appears during this time. And if you want a White Christmas in Iceland, you’ll do well to head to Northern Iceland.

 

On a side note, some of my Sunday school classmates made four Icelandic Christmas cookies: Silver Coins (Spesiur); Rice Krispies Muffins; Chocolate-Cornflake (Marens-Kornflexkokur; Soft Chocolate Pikes. The overwhelming favorite was the Marens-Kornflexkokur cookies from saveur.com.

These are the sources I can remember: wikipedia; whychristmas.com; saveur.com; guidetoiceland.is; iceland.is; icelandunlimited.is; icelandtravel.is; readitforward.com

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White Linen Night in the Heights

The DJ on the platform takes a selfie with two young women.

The DJ on the platform takes a selfie with two young women.

This past weekend, we attended White Linen Night in the Heights. It has been a popular event in Houston for the past 11 years, but this was our first time. The lively affair started when a couple of transplants from New Orleans suggested it to generate more interest in businesses along 19th street in the Heights area.

Vanity Salon on 19th St. provided hair braiding for a donation to their designated charity.

Vanity Salon on 19th St. provided hair braiding for a donation to their designated charity.

The couple, Chris & Kay Thayer, had a business on Magazine Street in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and flooded 80% of the city. Their shop was not damaged, but they knew life would be very different if they stayed. They became part of the exodus of over 250,000 people resulting from the devastating levee failures against Hurricane Katrina’s powerful winds and water surges during that fateful summer of 2005.

The woman, below, looks up at a gorgeous chandelier rescued from an estate sale in River Oaks!

The woman, below, looks up at a gorgeous chandelier rescued from an estate sale in River Oaks!

Because of that evacuation, many New Orleanians decided not to go back to a place they loved dearly but knew they had to start afresh elsewhere. Plenty settled in Houston and brought their wonderful Creole culture with them. You can drive around the Heights and realize there is a definite influence.

I always wanted to meet famous women! This art car gave me the opportunity to hang out with bigger-than-life portraits of Mary Tyler Moore, Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo!

I always wanted to meet famous women! This art car gave me the opportunity to hang out with bigger-than-life portraits of Mary Tyler Moore, Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo!

The organizers of the annual free event only asks that you come dressed in white (preferably all white) and browse the local businesses.

Well, it wasn't quite a luau, but it felt like it in one of the shops that offered hair braiding along with clothes shopping, with a Hawaiian twist!

Well, it wasn’t quite a luau, but it felt like it in one of the shops that offered hair braiding along with clothes shopping, with a Hawaiian twist!

There are lots of freebies like water, teas, photo booth pictures, ice cream samples, appetizers, etc.

Large pitchers of complimentary iced tea in an antique shop greeted thirsty customers coming in from the Houston heat.

Large pitchers of complimentary iced tea in an antique shop greeted thirsty customers coming in from the Houston heat.

If you come before 6:30 pm, you can easily find a parking space at the Chase bank parking lot. It gets harder to find a parking space as the night gets longer. There’s a younger vibe later in the evening.

An Old English Sheepdog, or Bobtail, sits watching the crowds go by.

An Old English Sheepdog, or Bobtail, sits watching the crowds go by.

People packed the upper terrace at Harold’s restaurant and dined on authentic creole cuisine as they viewed the activity down below. We skipped the crowded restaurants and festival food trucks and left around 9 pm to stop at a local Mexican restaurant on the way home.

As the day wore on, no one seemed to notice as day seamlessly drifted into night.

As the day wore on, no one seemed to notice as it drifted seamlessly into night.

If you don’t mind the heat that will ease a little as the sun goes down and you enjoy shopping, this should be a night to put on your calendar for next year!

Sources: Creole vs.Cajun ; theheightswhitelinennight.com; datacenterresearch.org

Where’s Soo?

 

The Question

Did you wonder what happened to me this year? Did you think I dropped off the face of the earth??? I admit it. There wasn’t much reaching out this year, but I’m still here. Really. I am.

 

The Explanation

For one thing, I became more active on Twitter. Quickly posting 140 character tweets, including images, is so freeing. And I learn lots by following amazing people in various fields of interest. I even won an ASUS tablet on Twitter! (Tell you about it in another post.)

The second reason is because we have been traveling quite a bit. Often, in my posts, I try to research places or subjects I mention to give you interesting tidbits and facts. That requires a little more thought and planning, which can be difficult to do when we’re on the go.

 

The Gratitude

But, let me tell you …

This has been a wonderful year! A blessed year! A year of thanksgiving!

A little one has come into our family and enriched our lives immensely. And to add to that, my husband and I have taken more time to travel our beloved United States and beyond.

 

January

DSC06416We visited Ice Land at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas. It was 9° inside! They brought in a team of experienced ice sculptors from Harbin, China. Also known as ‘Ice City’, Harbin is the acknowledged cradle of ice and snow art in China and is famous for its spectacular ice and snow sculptures.  

The Moody Gardens theme was a SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas and went into the first week of 2015. 

 

Before heading home, we had dinner at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, the largest fresh fish house along the Gulf coast. With over 100 years of seafood service in Galveston, this is the place we go when we want a view of the water and to be pampered in a lovely setting.DSC06488

 

Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States and has a large number of Asian residents. Understanding the need to educate Americans about Asia, a group led by former First Lady Barbara Bush and former Ambassador Roy M. Huffington established Asia Society Texas Center in 1979.

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I visited the Asia Society Texas Center when there was an exhibit of The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi. His 2005 mask of Johannes Vemeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was so unexpected! Can you imagine being behind the mask, trying to feel what she was thinking?

 

 

 

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Oni Sadobo, 2011, was made of the treacherous monk from a famous Kabuki play. Very meticulous. Even the brown specks on his face replicated the foxing seen on the original woodblock print!

 

 

 

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I couldn’t resist trying on a mask! Like it?

 

 

 

 

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston offers free general admission every Thursday. Lots of wonderful things to see. One of my favorite pieces is by Mary Cassatt. Mary was one of only two women and the lone American to join the Impressionists. Her close friend, Edgar Degas, encouraged her to join and what a gift she has given us! “Susan Comforting the Baby” is such a lovely snapshot of a typical moment in everyday life.IMG_0561

 

Really like this sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg, born just down the highway from Houston, in Port Arthur, Texas. Only then, he was called Milton. The chairs are really metal, assembled to appear wooden!

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Interesting man. In the mid-1940s, Robert had planned to go into medicine, but after serving in the Navy, he enrolled in art school in Kansas. The following year, he went to Paris to study at one of the art Academies.

In the 1950s, Rauschenberg recyled found things like tissue paper and dirt into his art. Throughout the years, he designed costumes, sets and lighting for dance companies. He also founded or co-founded several organizations to help artists.

 

February

The Chinese Lunar New Year brought out some beautiful clothes. This shy young boy was kind enough to stop a moment and let me take a picture. (As with any recognizable close-ups of children, I ask their parents or guardians for permission first.)

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We head north to spend time with relatives. It snowed, which doesn’t happen often in the Houston area. It was lovely!

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This is also the month trail riders and wagons start the trek to Houston’s Livestock Show & Rodeo! It can take weeks for some teams. This particular team, Los Vaqueros Rio Grande, drove their five wagons the farthest: 386 miles!  It starts in Reynosa, Mexico, crosses into Hidalgo, Texas and comes right by our community on the three week ride into Houston. They have been riding into the HLSR for 42 years! I have only seen them go by our community THREE times in the 20 years we’ve lived here, so it was a real treat to take a quick shot as they rode by!

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March

I went to Arizona to visit my old roommate. We celebrated Palm Sunday at an inspiring, bonding outdoor mass. (I’m Baptist, but she didn’t know of a Baptist church, and well, we worship the same God.)

 

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Afterward, we walked the Labyrinth at the Franciscan Renewal Center. The labyrinth is a physical representation of the journey of one’s life, including experiences, changes, discoveries and challenges. As you walk the path, you are invited to remember the story of your life. For medieval Christians who couldn’t take the long, hard pilgrimage, labyrinths were the alternative form for prayer. The seven circles are shaped like the Cross and you can walk it any way you like.

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This particular labyrinth was designed by Taffy Lanser, a founding member of the international Labyrinth Society.

 

We also went to a festival in Scottsdale.The theme might have been Spain. They had gorgeous Andalusians (Pure Spanish Horses) walking about, singers and (I think) flamenco dancing. Gorgeous desert blooms!

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The only down side of the trip was when I was catching a flight back. I had just found out I had to change my flight and leave a day earlier, which was that day! The flight was moved to two hours before take-off and I rushed to find a taxi to take me to the airport. Compared rates and went with Discount Cabs. BIG mistake! Wished I’d taken the time to research it. I gave location and destination and was given an approximation, give or take a few dollars. The cab was late, it didn’t look like a cab, and the driver was new. I had to get in or miss my flight. When I asked the driver why he was so late, he said he didn’t take his phone in when he had to stop at a store. NOT very professional. The final bill was $17 more than the quote. I lost a few minutes trying to speak with a supervisor about the outrageous overage. Three people later, no refund. So, the moral of the story is to use Yelp or check the Better Business Bureau or Google search (or ALL of them!) when comparing prices. The least expensive may not be such a bargain in the long run. Beware Discount Cabs!!!

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“Happy Veterans Day!”

"Baba"

“Baba”

“Happy Veterans Day, Baba!”

That’s what I would have said to my father, were he alive today. “Baba” served in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was assigned to mess duty and used those skills to open a succession of restaurants years later. He re-enlisted in the the U.S. 14th Air Service Group, 407th Supply and Service Unit that supported the Flying Tigers stationed in China.

His good friend, Staff Sgt. Lewis Yee, taught him how to drive the big tankers hauling fuel for the airplanes. There were harrowing trips driving convoys through The Hump, that treacherous area of the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. The Burma road was a deeply winding route between India and China that was taken with big, unwieldy tankers next to sheer drops that required drivers with nerves of steel to navigate. I’ll tell you more about my father and his friend, Staff Sgt. Lewis Yee, in a later post.

If you see or know a veteran, please, please, take time to thank him or her for their service to our country. It can be any day of the year to do it. We owe them much!

“God Bless America!”

 

 

“Happy July 4th!”

A reminder to my fellow Americans:

This female eagle was seen in Yellowstone Park.

This female eagle was seen in Yellowstone Park.

 

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” ~ from the Declaration of Independence

 

 

 

The teeny, tiny white dot in the background is the eagle. We had a wonderful time!

The teeny, tiny white dot in the background is the eagle. We had a wonderful time!

 

Last week, we visited Yellowstone Park. Matt from Buffalo Bus tours did a great job showing us bison, elk, a bear and deer in the park. More in a later post.

A “Happy July 4th!” shout-out to Em, Miss B., J., K., E., R., M. and all the lovely people we met on the shuttle!

 

This year is the 200th anniversary of our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner:

“God Bless America!”

February 12, 2014 Meet Cricket!

You will love my lovely hometown!

You will love my lovely hometown!

 

 

 

Hola! My name is Cricket. I was born in the central plaza of La Antigua, Guatemala. I am made of twisted wires and two pretty turquoise bead eyes.

Are you my cousin?

Are you my cousin?

 

 

 

 

 

I have looked for other family members, but it seems that they are not nearby. It is good that I am curious and make friends easily.

 

 

 

Let me show you some of the lovely things in my picturesque hometown.Cricket 2

Rooftops are perfect for exercising and reading!

Rooftops are perfect for exercising and reading!

Exotic ice cream creations to tickle your taste buds!

Exotic ice cream creations to tickle your taste buds!

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"Painting" sawdust carpets for Semana Santa

“Painting” sawdust carpets for Semana Santa

Though not considered lovely, the painted public wash tubs have seen decades of dirty clothes.

Though not considered lovely, the painted public wash tubs have seen decades of dirty clothes.

Senor Crepe makes Cricket a complimentary dessert

Senor Crepe makes Cricket a complimentary dessert

 

There are many pretty flowers here.

There are many pretty flowers here.

 

Magic Day 5: Belize City, Belize

Thursday,  November 7, 2013

"Sorry, what can I do?"

“Sorry, what can I do?”

We’re told to not venture outside of the tourist areas, so Lonnie & I sign up at Belize Caribbean Tours to visit the ruins. We hope that a small group with a guide will be a nice experience. It was a mistake … a BIG mistake. They herd four of us around for almost an hour, to three different “waiting areas” as they try to get more people to fill up the van. There are about a dozen of us who finally leave. But not before the agent gets an earful, even after he offers to add another stop along the route (that would squeeze the schedule’s timeline). If there’s a long wait time, passengers should be told. They probably didn’t want to lose customers, but it’s still a poor policy. We know better now that unless you already have a group going, DON”T sign up for a van!!!

Mayan ruins

Mayan ruins

Imagine their lives ...

Imagine their lives …

To be fair, our guide, Richard, is quite good. With 16 years as a guide under his belt, he’s a constant stream of Belize history. He says to ask him anything, even about his family. (We now know how much it costs for his child to go to school and what color her uniform is.  We also go by the school she attends.) There’s a short tour of the city, then countryside, before taking an hour long trip to the ruins. Okay, it’s fun speeding past the huge, lumbering cruise buses that sway along the horribly pockmarked excuse of a road. Thinking positively, our oft times jarring ride can also be seen as an invigorating seat massage. An advantage of a small group is that we can listen up close to the commentary – we definitely would not be able to hear as well in a large group walking the ruins. 

If you plan to visit for a while, this is some of what Richard shared with the van as we went hurtling along. Belize’s top four industries are agriculture, aquaculture, tourism and oil. There is no local paper, but they have electricity and lots of cable shows to keep them connected with the world. Water is 1/2 a U.S. cent per gallon. Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America. Thirteen years ago cruise ships began docking in Belize and Americans came, buying property and building homes here. Every citizen in Belize who turns 18 is gifted property from the government – in the city, a small property, in the country, up to 10 acres. A 2000 sq. ft. home in a decent neighborhood in the city runs about $250 for property tax. If you have someone working for you (maid, gardener), you have to pay income tax, about 7%.

June to November is the rainy season. We come at a good time. Last week everything was flooded and all tours were canceled! The last big hurricane here was in 1961. The crime rate is very low, 89 homicides/murders so far this year for the whole country. Richard talks about concrete homes, delicious fruit, the population, and much more! 

Happy image compliments of the house photography team:

A magical Elegant Night

A magical Elegant Night

Dining room dancing! Add another performance from Marlon, the Singing Waiter: