Thursday, December 29, 2011

Russian New Year: "Yolka"

We have a lot of Russian friends in Berlin and one of them invited us to the traditional "Yolka" celebration. "Yolka" is the word for Christmas tree in Russian. (It can also mean fir tree depending on the context.) As I mentioned in this post, holiday trees and presents in Russia are given at New Year's and not connected at all with Christmas. However, because Christmas is huge in Germany, a Russian-speaking organization in our neighborhood, Karussel e.V., puts on a the "Yolochka" just before Christmas rather than at New Year's.

Having just been to Russia in November, my daughter was thrilled to be going! Children usually wear costumes for the celebration and my daughter wanted to go as "Snegurochka" ("Snow Maiden"), the granddaughter of Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost", the Russian version of Santa Claus).

Braiding the hair is an important aspect of any event for little Russian girls . . .

In the Snegurochka outfit, sitting on the front row, waiting for the theatre piece about Ded Moroz. (Of which she didn't understand more than a handful of words!)

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka leading the children in a dance around the Yolochka. Notice that Ded Moroz's hat is flat on top and does not have the pointy tip and pom-pom that Santa's has.

Enjoying the goodies from Ded Moroz!

С наступающим Новым Годом!
Happy New Year!
Guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Eve / Heiligabend 2011

In Germany, the crescendo to the holiday festivities is Christmas Eve. In Berlin on this day, called "Heiligabend" ("Holy Evening" in German), people gather with family and friends for a special meal and opening presents. And many people also attend Christmas services at church even if they aren't that interested in religion the rest of the year.

Our church plant's tradition is to have a special Christmas Brunch together and then go to a local hospital to sing Christmas carols for the patients. This year after the meal, the adults gathered together for a short time of worship and I had a special service for the children. Since the other kids in our project were away for the holidays, it was just my two kids and me.

I had saved an orange crate a couple of weeks ago with the idea of turning it into a manger. Frontier Dreams has a lovely post about growing grass for the manger that I want to try next year. However, I started too late this year, so I have to admit that I used the nesting grass we buy for our hamster instead.:) I made a simple altar in the kitchen with nativity figures, the Christ Candle and the Godly Play Christmas board and placed the manger on the floor in front of it.

My daughter immediately wanted to know why it was empty and offered to get one of her dolls to put in it.  I told her it was empty on purpose and reminded her that Advent was a time of preparing our hearts to receive God's gift of Jesus. Today we would receive God's gift new and fresh in our lives and I didn't want to put a specific "face" on that gift. 

At the same time, we would also think about what we wanted to give Jesus as a gift. I then gave each of us some modeling clay and told the kids that we would make something out of clay that we want to give Jesus. It was a very informal, sweet moment with my children and God.

Some of our gifts for Jesus.

My daughter working on her gifts for Jesus. 

This was our third year in a row to sing at the hospital and it has come to be one of my favorite parts of Christmas. The patients are usually elderly and the familiar songs bring comfort to them as they spend Christmas Eve in strange place. Each year we have seen men and women moved to tears as we sing. We take our kids along and that it is an added blessing for the patients to see happy, healthy children. 

Our singing group.

My son is old enough to read the words to the songs now!

Our family Christmas portrait.

Being Americans, my kids have to wait until Christmas Day to open their presents. They don't seem to mind even though all their friends get to open theirs on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is then a very relaxed day of being together, playing games and eating good food. (My husband and I bake a goose each year.)

And in Germany, we get two days for Christmas.  Dec. 26 is also an official holiday and most businesses are closed as well.  Everyone spends the day with family and resting from the previous stress. It's a great tradition and I think that every country should have two days for Christmas!

We spent our second Christmas day by taking a stroll in the park, playing games, learning with my daughter to knit (she got knitting needles and a how-to book for Christmas) and watching "A Christmas Carol".

Hope the next few days are peaceful for you as we count down to 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"A Gift for Our City" - Part 3

Hier ist die aufregende Klimax der AdventsAG 2011, "Ein Geschenk für unsere Stadt"! In unserer dritten und letzten Woche zusammen waren wir bereit einen "kleinen Schritt" zu machen und der Stadt etwas zu schenken zu Weihnachten. Was schenkt man einer ganzen Stadt? Möglichst etwas, wovon viele profitieren können. Und deshalb haben wir uns für eine Müll-Sammeln-Aktion in einem Park nahe der Schule entschieden. Here's the exciting conclusion! In our third and final week of Advent Club, we were ready to take a "small step" together and give our city a Christmas gift. What do you give a whole city? Well, you try and give something that will benefit a lot of people in some small way. We decided that our gift would be to pick up trash in a park near our school.

Wir suchten einen von den Kindern bekannten Platz aus, damit unser "kleiner Schritt" konkret und sinnvoll für die Kinder wäre.  In dieser Gegend wird der Müll oft schneller auf den Boden geworfen als die BSR aufräumen kann.  Die BSR hat uns vorher mit Handschuhen, Steckern, und großen Mülltütten gut ausgerüstet. Die Kinder fanden die Stecker besonders toll! We chose a place that the kids knew well, so that our "small step" would be something concrete and meaningful for them.  Our school is also in an area that a lot of tourists visit, so often the trash gets thrown down faster than the city's sanitation service, the BSR, can pick it up.  The BSR graciously provided us with gloves, tongs to pick up the trash and large blue trash bags.  The kids loved the tongs!

Am Tag der geplannten Aktion haben wir Donnerwetter gehabt und ich habe mich darauf vorbereitet, dass wir vielleicht die Aktion absagen müssen. Aber von Mittag bis ungefähr 16 Uhr hörte der Regen auf. Wir haben dann ein bisschen Sonne bei der Aktion gehabt und blieben trocken. Dann sobald die AG vorbei war, fing es wieder an zu regnen.: ) On the day that we planned to do the trash pick-up, it was raining cats and dogs and I had even prepared myself that we might have to cancel it if the weather didn't clear up by the afternoon. But from about lunchtime to 4pm, the skies were clear and we had lots of light. Then, as soon as the Advent Club was over, it started raining again.: ) 

Die Kinder haben unterschiedlich reagiert. Für manche war es die reine Freude . . . 
The reactions of the kids ranged from sheer glee . . . 

Andere fanden die Arbeit ziemlich ekelhaft . . . 
to being fairly grossed out . . . 

Dieser Junge meldete sich für die AG nur wegen der Müll-Aktion 
und seine Leistung war unglaublich!
This guy signed up for the Advent Club just so he could pick up trash and he was amazing!

Wir haben eine ganze Stunde Müll gesammelt, was für Grundschulkinder eine lange Zeit ist. Einige Anwohner haben uns beobachtet und sich bei uns bedankt. We picked up trash for an hour, which is a long time for elementary school children! We also were thanked several times by grateful passers-by who couldn't believe that children were doing this voluntarily.

Jede Ecke untersucht . . . 
Searching every nook and cranny . . . 

Als die Stecker sich in Licht-Schwerte verwandelt haben, gaben wir die Müll-Tütten an der Schule ab und gingen in die Kirche zu feiern! Just as the pick-up tongs turned into light sabers, we deposited our trash bags at the school and headed to the church down the street to celebrate our time together.  

Mit Kakao, Lebkuchen, und Spekulatius, haben wir die Aktion ausgewertet. Obwohl ein paar Jungs das Müll-Sammeln so toll wie den eigenen Geburtstag fanden, haben die meisten die Aktion als harte Arbeit wahrgenommen. Sie haben festgestellt, es kostet uns manchmal etwas um anderen zu helfen. Und hoffentlich in der Zukunft werden die Kinder empfinden, dass die Kosten sich lohnen.  Over hot chocolate, gingerbread and cookies, we discussed how our time had been together.  Though some of the boys thought it was the most fun they had ever had, most everyone else agreed that it had been hard work. We realized together that sometimes it costs us something to do something for others. And hopefully the kids will find in the future that the cost is worth it.

Frohe Weihnachten, Berlin!
Merry Christmas, Berlin!

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of our Advent Story if you haven't read them yet!

Linked to The Magic Onions

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"A Gift for Our City" - Part 2

Diese Woche in der AdventsAG, "Ein Geschenk für unsere Stadt", haben wir die ganze Weihnachtsgeschichte gehört. Und über viele Fragen gewundert. Warum braucht man vier Wochen um sich für Weihnachten zu vorbereiten? Woran denken wir bei jedem Adventssonntag? Warum ist Gott als kleines, hilfloses Baby auf die Erde zu uns gekommen statt als großer, mächtiger König mit Palast und Reichtum.  Und was bedeutet diese ganze unglaubliche Geschichte für uns als Kinder in unserer Stadt? This week in Advent Club, "A Gift for our City", we heard the whole Christmas story and wondered together about several questions.  Why do we need four weeks to prepare ourselves for Christmas? What do we think about on the different Advent Sundays? Why did God come as a small, helpless baby to earth instead of as a powerful king with an army, palace and riches? Und what does this crazy story mean for us as children in our city?

Die Godly Play Geschichte hier erzählt die Weihnachtsgeschichte
und was man im Advent zu bedenken hat.
The Godly Play story of Advent tells the Christmas story
and why we need four weeks of preparation.

Am Ende haben wir die Kindern mit diesen Gedanken gelassen: das Licht von Weihnachten können wir das ganze Jahr mit uns überall mitnehmen. Und wie Jesus mit kleinen Schritten angefangen hat, der Welt Gutes zu tun, so können wir auch.  Und Gott nimmt unsere kleine Schritte und macht etwas Schönes daraus. At the end we left the children with these thoughts: the Light of Christmas is something that we can keep with us the whole year and take with us everywhere we go. Just as Jesus began by taking small steps (that eventually had a great impact!), we can start taking small steps to help the world as well. And God will take our small steps and make something beautiful come out of them.

So . . . wir machen nächste Woche einen kleinen Schritt zusammen und schenken unserer Stadt etwas! Was kann man einer ganzen Stadt schenken? Ich verrate nicht, ihr musst auf die nächste Folge warten!! So. . . next week we will take a small step together and give our city a Christmas present. What can you give a whole city? I'm not going to give it away, so you'll just have to wait until the next post to find out!

In der Kreativphase haben die Kinder wieder einige Angebote gehabt: 1) mit dem Geschichtematerial zu spielen; 2) malen mit Ölkreide; 3) Anhänger aus Bienenwachs anzufertigen; 4) eine Weihnachtskrippe aus Naturzeug zu basteln.  Das letzte war der absolut Hit mit den Kindern! In the creative phase after the story, the children again had several options: 1) play with the story materials; 2) draw with oil pastels; 3) make tree ornaments out of beeswax; 4) make a nature nativity. The last option was the big hit with the kids!

Schaut mal, was für Ideen die Kinder hatten:
Look at the great ideas that the kids had:

ein bisschen Schnee . . . 
a little snow . . . 

einen Weihnachtsstern aus Ton . . . 
make a Christmas star out of clay . . . 

Maria und Joseph hinzufügen . . . 
add Mary and Joseph . . . 

ein Häuschen fürs Christkind . . . 
a hut for Baby Jesus . . . 

ein Turm für die Kerze . . .
a tower for the candle  . . . 

Die letze Folge kommt bald! 
Stay tuned, the last episode is coming soon!

Falls ihr Teil 1 verpasst habt, findet ihr hier.
In case you missed Part 1, click here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Changing the Story to fit the context: "The Great Family"

Well as promised . . . what exactly are Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus doing in the desert with Isaac and Rebekah?

The Godly Play story, "The Great Family", is from the faith genre and helps children deal with the question of identity. It tells the story of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah to make them in to a great nation that would be a blessing to all the earth. The way the story is presented is pure genius and I love telling it. However, as I have told this story the past few months in two different languages and two different contexts, I found the need to make a few adjustments.

The change in the picture above was in the context of an Advent Club for German elementary school children. I chose to tell the story of Abraham and Sarah, because I wanted the children to consider where Jesus came from, what kind of family he was born into, and where he learned to take small steps of faith. This story does a great job of helping answer these questions, especially with the small changes that I made.

Why did I need to make changes? First of all, the German version of the story does not mention Jesus. (Does the original English story mention him? I recently saw Jesus in this story on someone's blog, but I`m not sure if it was added as well.) The German version ends with Isaac and Rebekah having children, their children having children, etc. Then, it mentions that the Great Family produced the Jewish people, that the worldwide Christian Church also came to be as a result of this Great Family, and that the children are now themselves a part of the Great Family. It is an appropriate way to end the story. But for Advent, bringing Jesus into the story sheds a very important light on how the Old Testament is connected to the New.

Secondly, there are children in the Advent Club who don't necessarily believe in God and don't consider themselves Christians. The GP story was originally written for children within an Episcopal parish context with many children who were growing up in the church. The last line says, " . . . and one day your grandparents had children, and then your parents had you, and now you are a part of the Great Family".  To assume that, however, with the Advent Club kids would be to deny their current worldviews and their ability to think and choose.

So . . . after the sentence about the Jewish people arising from the Great Family, I told the children that, " . . . one day Mary was born in to this family; Joseph was born into this family, too; and then Jesus himself, the Christ Child, was born into this Great Family.  Jesus opened the door for everyone who wants to be a part of this Great Family to become a part of it. This is how the Christian Church came to be. And if you wish to be, you can a part of this Great Family, too."

The other time that I changed this story was in November when I told it in a Russian church in Irkutsk. Again, I was in a context where most of the children's grandparents and great-grandparents were / had been staunch atheists.  I couldn't be intellectually honest with my listeners and use the normal text.  So, again, I brought Jesus into the story and told them that He opened the door for us all to be a part of the Great Family.

For me, Godly Play is a tool (a brilliant one!), but not a canon. I would never completely change the stories and still call them Godly Play. However, I do feel that there are times when one has to consider the audience and one's own theological persuasions.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Four Candles Burning

Happy Fourth Advent! This week at church, we heard the Godly Play story, "The Mystery of Christmas". This story is based on a series of frescos by Giotto and contains parts of the Christmas story that are not as frequently told, but nonetheless important. The story was written for older children, so I left out some parts for the younger children in our group. 

The panels are normally found in a wooden, golden parable box.  Since I only had a backpack today to transport my materials in, I wrapped them in gold paper with a bow. The children immediately made the connection with the parables before I began speaking.  

"This is the most mysterious parable of all: that God became a human being, that He entered our world as a baby . . . "

I didn't tell this story last year, because I couldn't find a copy of Madeleine L'Engel's The Glorious Impossible that the Godly Play German books recommend purchasing for the storytelling. This year, however, I discovered that all of the paintings were on-line here and here. So I downloaded them, mounted them on canvas, and varnished them with Modge Podge.

Middle: The Birth of Jesus; Counter-clockwise from top left: The Annunciation,
Mary's Visit to Elizabeth, Presentation in the Temple, The Visit of the Magi,
The Murder of the Innocents in Bethlehem, and The Flight to Egypt
I think this will now be one of my favorite Godly Play stories. Not only does it fill in some blanks for children about the events surrounding Jesus' birth, it also introduces them to some amazing art. The 8-year-old in the group was riveted, but it did get a little long for the younger children.  There is no "Wondering" phase at the end, and I was going to try it anyway, but the smaller children were too tired by that point to try. 

For the creative phase, the children could either draw or make more beeswax ornaments. (I've certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of this craft this Advent season! Thanks again, Naturkinder!)

Then, came a special Advent feast thanks to a good friend who prepared it for us and let us use her apartment for the children's service!

On Fourth Advent, we also spend time remembering the wise men who followed the star from the east to find the Christ Child.  We also spend some more time thinking about Mary on this Sunday as well, because without her, there would be no baby.

The Godly Play board for the Fourth Advent Sunday.

Our old East German-made cabinet is running out of room!
 Hope you are finding peace in the midst of the sometimes crazy last week of Advent! Blessings and joy to you all!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Reading

Okay, I hope this isn't too far off topic from the rest of this blog, but since reading is such a huge part of our Advent experience each year, I thought I'd share a few books that have become classics in our household. These are the books that the kids ask for time and time again along with a few new ones that we discovered this year. 

In English:

The First Christmas - This is a simple text with vivid illustrations that preschoolers just love.

Mortimer's Christmas Manger - This brilliant story is about a mouse who is tired of his creepy, dark hole. At Christmas he discovers this little house with strange statues, decides to move in and kicks out the statues. Until he discovers who they are . . . Will Mortimer find a home just right for him?

Mr.Willowby's Christmas Tree - A whimsical recycling story.

Shall I Knit You a Hat? - This story made me wish I could knit! Little Rabbit designs hats for all of his friends and his mother knits them. It even comes with a pattern for a bunny ear hat.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - A hysterical story that reminds of what Christmas is really all about. My third grade teacher read this to me many years ago. Then, I read the excellent German translation, Hilfe, die Herdmanns kommen!, after moving to Berlin.  This year, I read it to my kids for the first time and I can't ever remember laughing so hard during Advent before.

A Christmas Carol - Victorian English or not, this is a timeless classic that older kids (8 years and up) can really enjoy. We actually read this on-line version, a shorter version that Dickens himself condensed for public reading. I read it to my 3rd and 4th grade native speakers at school. Of course, I had to explain a lot of the archaic language, but the kids definitely got the gist of what was happening.

In German:

Das erste Weihnachtsfest - A simple retelling of the story with nice pictures.

Mischas Reise zum Christkind - We found this adorable story in a bookstore when my son was three. He is eight now and we are still reading it!  It is about a bear named Mischa, who collects gifts from the animals for Baby Jesus and journeys to Bethlehem to present them.

Tinas Tannenbaum - A sweet story about a little girl who turns an ordinary fir tree into a Christmas tree with the help of the forest animals.

Olles Reise zu König Winter - Another timeless story of a boy who meets King Winter and falls in love with his kingdom.  Last April, my kids went around shouting at "Mrs. Thaw" when the snow started melting just like the boys in the books. 

In Russian:

Школа снеговиков or "Snowman School" - This is a relatively new book from a series about "Ded Moroz", the Russian version of Santa Claus. Ded Moroz decides to make himself some helpers and brings a bunch of snowmen to life.  Then, his granddaughter, Snegurochka ("Snow Maiden"), gets to be their teacher. I read each sentence to the kids in Russian and then translate it to English.  It is very funny and though some of the humor gets lost in translation, we have still enjoyed it. 

What are some of your family's favorite Advent books?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Godly Play on the Go

If there's one thing I am a near expert on, it's how to do "church-in-a-box". None of the church plants that I have been involved in, whether in Russia, the US or Germany, have ever owned their own building! As a result, transporting things and setting up spiritual spaces in creative places has become a way of life for me.  I've turned kitchens, classrooms and other small places into Godly Play rooms on many occasions.  So, when the local church near our school generously offered us the only room that wasn't previously taken for Advent festivities, I was ready. 

One of the biggest jobs is actually transporting the materials. With Godly Play, you always have lots of stuff, so it's not uncommon for religion teachers in Germany to carry around a suitcase or trolley with their GP stuff in it.  Since I always have art supplies, art boards, and cushions (to sit on) in addition to the actual story materials, I need a bicycle trailer to get it all around. Where I live in Berlin, a car isn't always terribly helpful, since it is impossible to find a parking space!

Unloading the bicycle trailer in front of the church office.
When I first walked into the room (below) where we were to meet, I wasn't sure how we would fit 10 children and 3 adults in here.  With the pastor's permission, I basically cleared out the entire room and put most of the furniture and objects in the room next door. This made the room almost twice as big and you can tell by looking at the cushions below, we could all easily fit even if we were a little snug.

I removed everything from the desk in front of the room and made a focus table with the Christ candle, cross, and two of the three stories that I would be telling.

Then, I relocated everything that was on the lower shelves, so that I could place the art supplies that the children would be using there.

And then, I just prayed that God would come and make this a joyful and welcoming space for the five boys (did I mention that they are very active boys?!) and five girls that would be coming. And though we were rubbing elbows (literally) at times, it worked beautifully!

For more about setting up Godly Play rooms, please see the post, Godly Play 101: The Space, and the commentary that ensues.