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Nostalgic Ramblings 7 December 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Baking, Christmas, Happiness, Life.
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Today is Advent, door number 7.

I say this, because when I was young, and growing up in Norway, we would all have advent calendars, and every day from 1 December until 24 December, you would get to open another door and get another lolly or little gift. This year, we were lazy and only bought a chocolate calendar. My mum used to make the calendar herself, which was a much more personal touch. Yet another thing that I wish to do for my children.

But this set me thinking. In Norway (and Scandinavia in general), there are a million and one rituals around Christmas. This would mean that by the time Christmas came around, I used to be thoroughly whipped up in a frenzy. But is also meant that I would have a real Christmas feeling, which is indescribable, you have to feel it to understand it.

It all starts when the weather is getting colder and colder. It often snows for the first time of the year in October (in the south, the north can be much earlier). Everyone hopes that there will be snow on Christmas Eve. There is nothing that contributes more to the Christmas spirit for me than pine trees heavily laden with snow. We used to have a couple of 10 metre tall trees in the garden that every year looked like they were made just for Christmas. Getty Images can show you what I mean:

Then, 4 Sundays before Christmas, you are supposed to light the first candle of advent. The Norwegians have candle holders with spaces for 4 candles, which you light in succession leading up to Christmas. Often, you say a poem or a prayer when lighting it. We never did this at home, as we are not a religious family, but we used to do it at School on the Monday after.

The poem goes along these lines:

4th Sunday before Christmas:
We light one candle tonight for happiness. It shines for itself and those of us who are here.

3rd Sunday before Christmas:
We light two candles tonight, for hope and happiness. It shines for itself and those of us who are here.

2nd Sunday before Christmas:
We light three candles tonight, for longing, hope and happiness. It shines for itself and those of us who are here.

Last Sunday before Christmas:
We light four candles tonight, for longing, hope, happiness and peace. It shines for itself and those of us who are here.

Then, the advent calendar starts on 1 December. There is the one you have at home, and there often is one at school. And then there is the one which is shown on television – a 24 part series for children that runs through until Christmas Eve. My favourite used to be Jul i Skomakergata, which was shown every couple of years.

At my house, we also had Sinterklaas on 5 December.

Then, there is Santa Lucia on 13 December. This is to commemorate Lucia, an Italian saint. Traditionally, you were supposed to have finished all your Christmas preparations by this date, as superstition dictated that bad spirits would lurk in the shadows on this date and punish those who hadn’t. On Lucia (which is the Latin word for light), you were supposed to light every corner of your house with candles to prevent the spirits from finding a place to hide. Now, we eat Lussekatter (Safran buns, come back on 13 December for a recipe) and there are processions of children dressed in white with candles that come around to hand them out. For some reason they also wear strands of tinsel around their waists, the boys wear pointy hats, and Lucia herself has been transformed from an Italian (with black hair and dark features) to a Scandinavian beauty, with long blond hair, blue eyes and a crown with candles on her head.

You are ‘supposed’ to bake 7 different types of biscuits for Christmas, which means lots of different, awesome baked goods, including gingerbread, and many other delicious and completely unhealthy foods and treats.

People decorate their houses, and many families place their advent candles near the window, so others can enjoy it.

In my family, we decorated the tree on ‘Little Christmas Eve”, which is 23 December, however, for the tree to acclimatise, we would buy it during the week leading up to Christmas, and place it in a cooler room first. This caused less of the needles to drop after erecting it, and it would spread the smell of pine throughout the house.The tree was of course placed near a window, so your neighbours could enjoy it with you.

Imagine walking through the streets, it is so cold that your breath freezes in your nose, and you can see it escaping your mouth. Beneath your feet, you hear the snow crunch, as you hurry home in the semi darkness. Each house you pass has candles in the windows, and the squares of light from the windowpane lights the snow outside. That is Christmas to me.

Christmas to me smells like pine trees, baked goods, oranges and cloves.

And there is nothing more magical than if you remembered to put the low-heat outdoor candles on a tree in the garden before a layer of snow would cover them. When you light the candles under the snow… Oh wow, it is Christmas.

Sinterklaas don’t come around here anymore 6 December 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, Sinterklaas.
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This year, my Sinterklaas was a little sad, mainly because I am in that stage of my life where I am not a kid any more, which means that people will no longer go out of their way to spoil you and feed you treats, and I don’t have kids of my own to spoil, either. Additionally, I am in a country where Sinterklaas is not celebrated, and where ingredients are both hard to come by and expensive.

There were no lollies to be found in my shoes leading up to yesterday (even though I sang many a Sinterklaas song to lure Saint Nicholaas to my house; he must not have heard them).

There were no Kris Kringle presents that needed preparing nor poems to write. (When you reach a certain age in the Netherlands, the whole Sinterklaas coming to your house and giving presents turns into selecting a name out of a hat, finding a present for that person, then wrapping it in a clever way, and finally writing a funny tongue-in-cheek poem about your person and his or her preceding year, to alleviate some of Sinterklaas and Piet’s work on the evening. The idea is that he will be able to spend all his time on the kids rather than on the adults.)

I did have a get together at my house of friends and their families, to eat speculaas (unfilled) and merengue, and to drink mulled wine (which was a hit!), but I did miss my family awfully.

Late at night, I sent a little poem to my brother and parents on behalf of Vietnamese Piet. Soon after, I received gorgeous poems from UK Piet, although I am still not sure whether he asked both my parents to send separate poems, or whether there was an impostor in there somewhere, but I don’t really care. Yay for little gestures when one feels far away from home.

Miss you all.

Mid-Autumn Festival 6 October 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, Vietnam.
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This weekend we celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in Hanoi. Although the Festival was originally a party to celebrate the harvest throughout Asia, in Vietnam it has morfed into a festival for children, big and small. The Mid-Autumn Festival is to Vietnamese children more or less what Christmas is to children in Western countries.

There was a real festive atmosphere in all of Hanoi, and although I have been in Vietnam for more than a year, I was in Hoi An last year for the Mid-Autumn Festival, so it was still new and exciting to me as well.

Leading up to the Festival, companies and shops that normally sell other things decorate their store fronts with red lanterns and red banners, and start selling bánh trung thu, or moon cakes (see picture) everywhere. These are similar to, but not identical to the cakes eaten at the same time in China. The Vietnamese type are either light brown on the outside, and often have a mungbean paste inside with an egg yolk in the middle (like the Chinese version) or are white, with coconut inside. The latter ones are actually rather nice. And although I suggest that you should try both types (eaten in small wedges with tea) I thouroughly recommend the white ones over the brown ones.

moon cakes vn

(Photo found on the internet, as I did not buy any cakes myself this year.)

Furthermore, shops specialising in children’s toys expect an abundance of customers for the Festival, and stock up on merchandise.  On the steet, the street vendors that normally sell balloons, started to sell inflated frogs as well (not sure what the back story is of these, but they said ‘kiss me’).

The pomelo (citrus grandis), a large, sweet type of citrus not dissimilar to grapefruit is in season and is being sold everywhere. Its juicy wedges are even fashioned into the shape of puppies (weirdly unsettling, yet very cute).

In the lead up to the Festival, one particular street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hàng Mã, which normally sells paper money and other items (such as clothes, conical hats, motorbikes, houses, etc) for burning on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar month as offerings for the ancestors, now sells traditional (and not so traditional) toys, masks, wigs, hats, costumes for dragon dancing, witch’s hats and knick-knacks of every size, description and price. Everything seems to exhude a level of energy only ever otherwise felt around Lunar New Year.

Schools and businesses put on Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations for staff and their families, where children get to dress up and run amok. An absolute ball. The actual festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which this year fell on 3 October, a Saturday. We decided to head out to Hàng Mã on the day before, when it would be the busiest, to get a sense of the atmosphere and the excitement.

We had been warned about pick-pockets before going, so clinging on to our camera and with only a few strategically placed monetary notes in small bills in our deepest pockets, we braved the crowds. Walking from our apartment towards the festivities, you could almost feel the electricity in the air, and you could see the throngs of people all heading in the same direction. There was a real buzz in the Old Quarter, and it was infectious.

Noise would be the major operating word for the night, crowded the second. Whereas Hanoi by no means is a silent city at the best of times, the drums and the rattles, the tooting horns, the squealing children and the laughter and the craziness made it differently loud, and very, very fun.  Hanoi has never seemed more alive to me.

Hàng Mã was closed off for motorbikes, and a sea of people were streaming through. The first thing that met us at the western most end of the street was a group performing dragon dancing and banging on drums. For those of you who heard my story about the dragon dancing in Hoi An last year, you will understand that it did not capture me quite as much this time. I mean, there was no climbing up poles, dancing battles or police that came and broke up the crowds. But it very much added to the crazy evening with its swirling and rythmic franzy.

And the children! The children could hardly contain themselves (and most of them did not even try). They had been working themselves up to this weekend, and the last chance shopping on the Friday night was very much for their benefit. Seeing all the toys being sold, and the bunny ears, devil’s horns and angel wings gliding through the crowds at stomach level made me feel a little like a kid again.

Teenagers wearing brightly coloured wigs formed congalines that came bursting at high speed through the crowds towards you, all giggles and laughter. Some wore scary masks that made the youngest children scream in real, and the slightly older ones pretended, terror, while everyone clung on to other’s hands or shirts to not lose each other in the crowd. Not everyone has the benefit of being tall and thereby be easily spotted amongst a large number of Vietnamese of far shorter stature…

Some sellers had crafted trumpets out of old-fashioned camera film that, when blown, made an awful racket. Of course, it was soon discovered that should you place two of these horns in your mouth at once, it made twice the noise. You can imagine where that was heading, apart from partial deafness in my left ear as I passed someone in the crowd.

I only bought one thing at the Festival, a tiny figurine on a stick made from something I suspect is flour mixed with food colouring and water. It was a little tiny Vietnamese soldier, with gun and all, very cute. And I watched and enjoyed the locals buy and eat sugar spin and other rot-your-teeth-on-contact sweets and cakes. We even passed a news crew from Ho Chi Minh City that grabbed my partner, who ended up giving an impromptu television interview on the Festival from a foreigner’s perspective.

It was amazingly hot (due to the weather and the throngs), and after walking (read: shuffeling) the entire length of Hàng Mã, (read: a couple of blocks), and generally feeling sweaty, we ended up escaping into a side-street paralell to Dong Xuan street and took the long way around back to Hoan Kiem lake.


(Picture from the interweb)

The actual festival was on the following night, which would have been much the same, but with lanterns being lit and sent up into the night sky. We stopped at Highlands coffee overlooking the roundabout north of Hoan Kiem for a coffee, to observe the crazy traffic beneath and to have a rest before heading home again. After my walk through the crowded old quarter on the Friday, however, I didn’t manage to make it out again the next night.

One final thing I want to share with you, though, is the sentiments of a little boy I met on the way to the coffee place. He was about 8 years old, running ahead of his parents and clearly heading towards Dong Xuan. He was almost in a frenzy, trampelling his feet, practially hyperventilating, and throwing glances over his shoulder hoping that his parents would hurry up already. His face summed it all up for me; I wish I could be as excited about anything as this boy was about his night ahead. I hope he had a good one.