Stollen Bread? {12 Days of Christmas Traditions Explained Quickly}

Why do we eat Stollen at Christmas? All I can say is tradition...because my mom makes it every year...? There must be some background.

First, what is Stollen? Stollen, or Christstollen, is a German formed bread-like fruit cake. It's filled with dried fruits, nuts, and spices covered in powdered sugar. 

Now time travel six centuries ago to Europe! Stollen started (or was recorded) as far back as 14th century Germany. The shape of Stollen-- this fold-over dough with a white top layer-- is symbolic of baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths.  It started as a fasting cake made during Advent when people couldn't use butter, milk, or fruits (due to fasting rules) so it started as a very plain bread. After special appeal to the papacy in the 15th century, butter and milk were added, and the cake started looking more like it does today. Winter merriment started in Germany around the Winter Solstice before Christianity spread there, and the ingredients like rare spices and fruits were a treat for these special festivities, naturally also used in Christstollen.

"A  must  for breakfast."

"A must for breakfast."

All I knew of Stollen was that it was from Germany and my mom made a healthier version for my dad every year. She's an amazing baker, making more breads than I knew existed. She makes Japanese breads, Chinese special starter breads, naturally fermented starters for rustic breads, brick oven-baked bread... I could fill a book describing them all.  When I attempt yeasted breads I anxiously stare at my yeast dissolving, hoping it will activate and bubble instead of get scorched-- meanwhile my master baker mom makes her starter from scratch without any granulated shortcuts. There's no comparison to the flavor and texture of her bread- no matter what I bake it's mediocre because I've gotten used to hers. 

The etegami Christmas series wouldn't be complete without Christmas bread because our Christmas day wouldn't be the same without the sweet feast. 

This year I attempted baking 3 of the 10+ breads: 2 yeasted: Polish Poppyseed Walnut Bread, Swedish Marzipan Filled Coffee Bread, & 1 quick bread: Cranberry Orange Bread. I still have a long way to go but I hope to carry on the tradition. 

 

Christmas Cookies? {12 Days of Christmas Traditions Explained Quickly}

Christmas cookies tradition started from holiday biscuits in Medieval Europe. They included spices and dried nuts, like many of our Christmas cookies today. Apparently there were strict baking laws (presumably for safety reasons) but the holidays were an exception.

Some say that giving cookies to Santa started around the Great Depression to teach kids generosity. I know someone who was taught all along that Santa actually doesn't like cookies, he likes pizza and beer, so he grew up leaving pizza and beer out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Clever!

cookie etegami copysmall.jpeg

We haven't decided about Santa and kids but I wonder what the Santa who comes to our home would prefer... maybe brownies. Edge pieces only-- extra special gifts for corner pieces. 

When did St. Nick move to the North Pole? {12 Days of Christmas}

The background of St. Nick is somewhat known- the monk St. Nicholas born in 280AD was known for giving away his inherited wealth and helping many people. St. Nicholas day was celebrated December 6th, when people feasted and gave gifts. Stories about St. Nicholas giving gifts continued on for centuries.

The name? A quick overview:

  • Saint Nicholas
  • Sint Nikolaas (Dutch)
  • Sinter Klaas (shortened, Dutch)
  • Santa Claus

Now the main question: when did he move to the North Pole?

In 1890, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew what is now our image of Santa Claus in the North Pole. He was positioned there most likely because the arctic was seen as a mysterious fantasy land that no one had been to (yet), plus Christmas was associated with snow. So this mysterious, jolly, kind gift giver came from the land of the arctic, the North Pole. 

It says: "Oh look, there's Santa."

[another bubble burster: apparently there are no penguins in the North Pole...]

Poinsettia? {12 Days of Christmas Traditions Explained Quickly : Day 5}

First of all, the pronunciation: poinsett-ee-a? poinsett-a?

I wish they were around more than at Christmas since they're one of the few flowers I can keep alive! And to find out they are barely flowers... (the flowers are the tiny little yellow buds). I'm bursting my own bubble of festivity. 

DAY 5: POINSETTIA.

We're back to the Aztecs in modern-day Mexico where the plants originated (see post here about hot chocolate from Mexico). They grew in the wild in the winter and were used in important ceremonies. Fast forward to 16th century Mexico, when a little girl wanted to celebrate Jesus' birthday by taking him a gift but had nothing. An angel told her to take weeds which then turned into beautiful poinsettias at the church altar. The church continued to use poinsettias at Christmas, and they are now associated with the holiday because of the season they grow and because of this legend.

The name Poinsettia is from the American ambassador, Poinsett, who brought them back from Mexico to his greenhouse in South Carolina in the 1800s. 

Now back to pronunciation...

Poin-set-ya. 

But that's a little hard to pronounce so some regions developed into poinsett-ee-uh, and some to poin-set-uh. I can't ignore the i so I'm going to stick with poinsett-ee-uh.

Nutcracker? {12 Days of Christmas Traditions Explained Quickly : Day 4}

As strange as it sounds and for no good reason, those funny little nutcrackers are my favorite Christmas decorations. Yet I have no idea where they came from or why they are around only at Christmas. If it's trendy to have a gold rhino on your stack of books as a paper weight, why can't it be a nutcracker?

"I wonder if it really cracks?"

"I wonder if it really cracks?"

Day 4: NUTCRACKER.

How did nut-cracking pliers become a home decoration? The history goes back (at least) 300 years to a woodworking town in Germany. Dolls were given for good luck, and the same woodworkers made soldier dolls as well as nut-cracking tools, so the two were combined into one as a practical gift for good luck. The connection with Christmas may come from eating around this time since nuts are harvested in the fall and keep well.

Especially after Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Nutcracker Suite, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892 the little figurines grew in popularity. They became common in America only since the 1950s after soldiers in WWII brought them back from Christmas fairs in Germany (which I would LOVE to go to someday).

My favorite random fact that I've gathered from reading about nutcrackers is "Nutcrack Night" also known as Halloween. In Scottish and Northern English tradition, October 31 was the night to sit around a fire and crack freshly harvested hazelnuts and chestnuts. Maybe our nutcrackers should come out on Nutcrack Night and stay through Christmas!

Wreaths? {12 Days of Christmas Traditions Explained Quickly : Day 3}

Why have I been making wreaths from Christmas tree branches the past two Christmas seasons? Why did we hang one on our door growing up? Tradition, I suppose...

IMG_0987Edit copy.jpg

DAY 3: WREATHS.

Christmas wreaths can be traced back to Ancient Greeks and Persians, who wore them as a symbol of status or victory. They may have been hung in the home or on the door as souvenirs. Wreaths were also hung on doors as symbols of the home to distinguish one home from another.

The specific use of evergreens most likely stems from celebrating Winter Solstice. Evergreens were chosen since they stay green year-round; a symbol of life overcoming- again, a victory. 

In the Christian tradition the circular shape represents eternal life- perhaps using evergreens as a symbol of victory over death.

Which reminded me of:

"Death is swallowed up in victory. Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?...but thanks be to God who gave us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." (1 Cor. 15:55-57)

Wreaths are a much more powerful symbol than I had expected... it gives me more motivation to form those branches sitting on the balcony into a symbol to remember Christ's victory over death.

 

 

Mistletoe? {12 Days of Christmas Traditions Explained Quickly : Day 1}

We don't do a lot of Christmas decorating but we still have some basics including mistletoe, poinsettia, Christmas tree, branches for a wreath, nutcrackers... but if you ask me why? My best answer is: "It's festive (*add a big smile*)." So, here's my 12-day exploration featuring etegami to look at where these traditions came from!

Day 1: Mistletoe.

Why kiss under a mistletoe? Why not a holly? 

First, what is mistletoe: The name originated as "mistel"+"tan"= dung + stick

It's a parasite that is spread through bird poop. How romantic. 

Now a brief overview of the tradition: It symbolized love and friendship in European folklore, then in the Middle Ages was hung in homes for good luck and protection against evil spirits.

Kissing under it began in England, since mistletoe was attached to "Kissing Boughs"(basically a spherical version of a wreath) around wintertime . 

From England, the tradition migrated with people to America. Then fast forward hundreds of years, I'm giddy this year to discover preserved mistletoe at Trader Joe's! My first mistletoe! 

Hang your mistletoe, erase "dung stick" from your mind, and enjoy the tradition of love and friendship.

27/50 : Learning to Teach

This painting is from my last etegami workshop in November. It has taken that long to get back to writing! Since my translation and copywriting work is in the retail business, Christmas is the busiest season and it has felt like I'm just barely hanging on. In the middle of that, I got selected on a jury for jury duty! It was surprisingly very interesting, and for short cases I'd say it's a worthwhile experience (even though I was grumbling the whole time).

I daydream about painting these days as I walk to and from the stations on my commute. Since I'm explaining how I paint when I do workshops or demonstrations, I think more step-by-step. There's a lot that's just second nature now- when to apply more pressure, when to lift the brush, where to leave space white, where to add pops of color. I'm now having to trace my steps back to how I decide. 

"Autumn is the season for pumpkin pie"

"Autumn is the season for pumpkin pie"

Some things I've learned that I can now explain:

  • To get better at composition, look at good photographs. 
  • Practice your writing style and perfect your signature. 
  • Boldly mess up. Those confident mistakes often turn into something great.
  • No more than 2 layers of watercolor...let the paper breathe!
  • Variety of strokes, color intensity and values is key to get eyes glued on the piece.

Things I'm trying to teach myself, talking to myself:

  • Stop comparing. (You'll never paint like them, and no one paints like you.)
  • Keep painting. (It's getting better.)
  • Be patient. (You've already passed the Michelangelo/Mozart prodigy age.)

I'm glued in the psalms during this busy season. I particularly connected with:

And I say, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest." (Psalm 55:6-8)

How comforting to know that there are others that want to fly away and become a hermit sometimes. BUT right after in the same psalm:

"Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved." (Psalm 55:22)

 

25/50 : What to do with"28 Thousand Days"

 Our days are numbered. Alicia Keys reminded me the other day--"28 Thousand Days"? Maybe. Maybe not. Often not.

 Some changes at work make me more grateful for and mindful of the people I see daily. It's not guaranteed to continue.

 I painted this stack of pants for my boss as a goodbye and thank you gift to him- he reminded us of the right perspective, that we are after all "just selling pants."(written in Japanese in the painting since my job is exactly this translation process)

"Just Selling Pants" 

"Just Selling Pants" 

Psalm 39:4-7

Show me, Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.

Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be.

But now, Lord, what do I look for?

My hope is in you.

By hoping and trusting in God, who is eternal, it puts my petty daily troubles (which wouldn't even make a visible dot on a timeline of eternity) into perspective. They will pass, but how I respond and treat people in the meantime- those things last longer. While my boss (who is on to other adventures) was incredible at his job, his love for people and care for coworkers as family set him apart and impacted everyone.

 

"Let all that you do be done in love."

1 Corinthians 16:14

 

ALL? Yup. God can work miracles even in a hard heart like mine, so he can make the impossible a reality.

21/50 : Careful what you Google! [Lessons from a new job, part 2]

I was working on a quick one-line translation at work. I looked up a name for a shade of pink in Japanese to see if it was a transliterated color name (like "pee-chi" for peach, etc) or a Japanese word. No photos came up, just text. That should've been clue number 1, but I wasn't aware that apparently Google doesn't show photos for graphic content. The summaries I skimmed in the first 5 hits that came up were unexpected! There I was, week 1 at work, already looking up...what? Porn. Noted, I am definitely NOT using this word in Japanese!

Lesson 1: Careful what you Google.

For my sanity, I must stop comparing this work commute to my previous Tokyo commute. Where could I begin? Why do people on the platform stand directly in front of the doors and block passengers getting off the trains? Why is there enough space to do yoga in the aisles between the seats while people are packed like sardines in the space between the doors on each train? Why is the escalator line far down the platform blocking traffic while the stairs are empty? Why are both sides of the escalator standing sides during rush hour? I suppose these questions answers my last question: Why is the train late 90% of the time?

As scary as it was to face a herd of morning commuting robots in Tokyo, I appreciated the unspoken systematic approach once I got the hang of it and became one of the robots.

Lesson 2: I've a feeling we're not in Tokyo anymore.

This etegami ("letter painting") below was for work also, included in a thank-you note. We talked about going to Humphry Slocombe for an ice cream break after a busy week so that part of the conversation went into the painting.

This weekend I realized (again) that my hopes and prayers are small. But time and time again I'm shown that the "impossible" is possible, and I should hope for great things. I should expect God to work miracles. I'm a pessimist. So, I need extra time spent focusing on the truth, like:

God's voice thunders in marvelous ways, He does great things beyond our understanding. [Job 37:5]

and my favorite that I forget too often:

"Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be the glory..." [Ephesians 3:20]

It's "risky" for a pessimistic-planner-type to expect great things and pray for miracles but here we go! Maybe changing this "pessimistic-planner-type" description of myself will be miracle #1.

20/50 : A Burger for Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day in an etegami!

Below is what I painted during the art demo on Wednesday at the Fremont Art Association. Etegami ("painting letters") are usually seasonally themed, so I thought about what holidays are coming up and Labor Day was perfect! What's associated with Labor Day? Grilled burgers of course.

「休みの時はハンバーガー」:"When you're off, have a burger" (roughly translated)

Before the demo I was nervous: my first week of work overlapping with my first art demo/class... the 9-5 job wasn't on the radar when I first agreed to the demo date. Then as usual, some completely unnecessary pessimistic thoughts crept up:

  • What if only 3 people show up (my husband Page, the coordinator, me)?
  • What if I can't explain clearly?
  • What if they aren't interested?
  • What if they are disappointed?
  • What if my demo painting turns out terrible? 

While I couldn't do much to solve most besides pray for supernatural peace, I could at least cross off one by preparing and organizing to provide maximum clarity for participants. If they see me paint, hear me explain, read my handout, and paint their own etegami, that's at least 4 avenues of input! So I spent hours on Sunday planning and making a handout, taking my time since it was also an opportunity to brush up on Adobe InDesign [by no means a one-day feat].

To be honest, after my quick demo my perfectionist side was horrified to see my juicy burger (painting) seep into the bottom bun! BUT it was fun. People were excited and engaged, even inspired to buy the materials to do it at home or incorporate techniques into there own art practice. The enthusiasm of the 25 or so participants gave me a second wind of energy and my anxiety was gone.

I don't want it to sound like magic. The public speaking/teaching I signed up for over and over during grad school to conquer my fear of public speaking really helped. I learned how to organize, simplify, and explain slowly from practice. Opportunities don't just fall in place, but it looks like a pattern of God rewarding the work you put in. I firmly believe:

"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

because, 

"Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor build it in vain."

More pics on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/fremontartassociation?fref=ts

I expected this opportunity to be good practice and a fun side gig, but it went far beyond! Two tentative things to look forward to:

  1. Exhibiting my work in SF (a representative from an office in SF spoke with me right before the demo to see if I was interested. And YES I am.)
  2. Doing etegami workshops on Saturdays in the next few months

I can't stop thinking, "never try, never know, honey!" whenever something unexpectedly wonderful happens. Moral of the story: if you have a dream, you want to get better at something, you hope for something, GET MOVING.  Baby steps most certainly count!

"In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty." (Proverbs 14:23)

19/50 : Take advice! [Lessons from a new job, part 1]

A few weeks ago, back-to-back interviews seemed to go well with all 5 people so I went home and immediately painted personalized etegami ["painting-letter"] thank you notes, recalling something specific, (mostly) something funny/fun, from our conversations ("interviews"). The next morning I went to the post office right when it opened to send them off. 

I started this job about a week ago...never heard anything about the cards, but I didn't want to be pushy. A few days in I asked if they had received their cards, and they didn't know what I was talking about. Turns out snail mail goes to a floor inbox that nobody checks anymore since everything is done by email! Well, good to know I got the job for other reasons. Also, thank you to my friend Emilie who recommended sending emails AND thank you notes- at least they got the emails!

Lesson #1: follow practical advice from experienced, smart friends!

To the GAP Japan website designer

To the GAP Japan website designer

Each person seemed really pleased with their card, and seeing them smile made me happy. It was certainly worth the effort, even if the rushing-to-the-post-office part was unnecessary. The delay wasn't bad afterall since I got to see their surprised & happy reactions! It was exciting to see that they all put their etegami up on the wall by their desks.

Lesson 2: My ideal timing isn't necessarily God's ideal timing.

To the marketing director, whose mom recently sent her a picture of brushes she didn't know what to do with.

To the marketing director, whose mom recently sent her a picture of brushes she didn't know what to do with.

So far I love the job. The people, work, building, environment...all of it together is FUN. Some people would instantly fall asleep thinking about Japanese translating/copywriting all day, but I love it! I work on a computer but since I'm also interacting with people a lot it's the perfect balance for a social introvert.

If I go in early, I get off early enough to come home and keep up with painting (plus chores and daily life responsibilities, I suppose). It's quite an adjustment not being around to cook, clean, and spread chores/errands out throughout the day. Thank God (literally!) for kindness and patience from my husband. Needless to say, our home has seen better days.

For now, the emotional roller coaster of a job hunt is over. Jobs that I thought were good for me were not good in God's eyes because:

For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. {Psalm 84:11}

Lesson 3: My idea of a "good thing" isn't necessarily God's "good thing."


[Part 2] to come about funny surprises at work. Then more on an etegami painting class and a future art exhibition in SF! Whew, what a week!

 

15/50 : A Rainbow in Thailand

A repeated theme that I keep going back to when I find myself envious of other artists' work: IT TAKES PRACTICE! I can't expect to paint once a week and magically have tons of incredible art. It has to be a daily discipline to improve any skill.

So here I go, practicing etegami (picture-letters, Japanese folk art style):

I took photos in Thailand of things to paint later. A lot were based on color, texture, or shape.

"I saw a rainbow in Thailand"

"I saw a rainbow in Thailand"

I saw this one day during one of the travel days when we were waiting for a ferry for a couple hours at a ferry stop. Aside from the heat, the beautiful scenery made it a pleasant stop. The colors of cloth tied to the side of this little fishing boat were vivid and eye-catching against the grey water and green mountains behind.

13/50 : Picture-letter (etegami) painting

One day last week, mentally I was 150% over my summer cold/flu and ready to paint in the morning and apply to a job in the afternoon. Then my throat was dry, my head started to pound, my eyes got squinty from the "bright" light (shaded window)... But I was determined so I made a few attempts:

  • Dayquil for cold symptoms [but acetaminophen doesn't work for migraines, oops]
  • Hydrate, push through, it'll go away
  • Massage stiff neck
  • Do a yoga flow to increase blood flow and reduce migraine pain

Result: Nausea from the yoga inversion, migraine persists. Apparently it's time to lie down. Clearly my soul is DENSE and I need physical reminders of "let it go, you're not in control."

A family I met when I lived in Tokyo (2012-2013) has become closer than relatives, and are firmly planted in my heart as family. They welcomed me in as a stranger and have been the most hospitable people I've ever met. We eat together, talk about food, go to museums, look at art books, talk about life, God's goodness, culture... I look forward to every minute with them! I tried out "e-tegami," translated as "picture-letter," which is popular in Japan.

My formula to paint an e-tegami:

cropped image + ink + watercolor + words + signature

Each one is from a specific and memorable activity we did together while I was visiting.

I brainstormed painting one for another person I wanted to write a note to but since I'm not as close and have far fewer memories, I ended up opting for a traditional thank-you note. Interesting how that works. [These e-tegami were a special case, I've never done this before so please don't take it personally if I don't paint for you!]

There are classes on e-tegami in Japan but I've never seen them offered here and would love to do it! It's simple enough for anyone to try and the stylized strokes that are characteristic of e-tegami are what make each one unique so it's BETTER not to be a professional still life painter to make these! Most importantly, after a class they're still useful since they're personalized, seasonally-themed postcards.

Clearly I am indecisive in my interests [beyond wanting to eat 9 things on a menu at restaurants,] and am swayed between studio art, publishing companies, universities, and mochi-making in my kitchen! But my foundation is secure like the quote at the top of the page,

"I know not the way God leads me but well do I know my Guide."

Thanks for keeping up with this journey!