Festival of Lights celebrates a diversity of Christmas traditions

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28 countries represented in Lansing, Illinois

Festival of Lights
The Festival of Lights at the Lansing Public Library includes Christmas trees mannequins, costumes, and artifacts representing 28 different cultural traditions. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)
by Carrie Steinweg
Festival of Lights
The Friends of the Library got creative with their tree, which welcomes visitors into the Festival of Lights exhibit. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

LANSING, Ill. (November 27, 2017) – Christmas is a season full of traditions. Many of those traditions, both local and international, are represented at the Lansing Historical Museum, where the annual Festival of Lights exhibit opened on November 27, following a performance by the T.F. South choirs.

The longstanding tradition of decorated trees has been going strong for 36 years. This year, in the museum space in the lower level of the Lansing Public Library, visitors will find 35 trees and displays from 28 countries.

Although many of the trees and decorations appear every year at the museum, displays are re-arranged and new elements are added for each season. This year there is a theme of “Christmas Visitors.” Museum Curator, Barbara Dust, encourages visitors to come in and learn how different countries are visited by Santa, Le Befana, the Tomte, Nisse, the Three Kings, and others.

Right here in Lansing

The exhibit is often compared to the Christmas Around the World exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. While Lansing’s version doesn’t have quite as many trees and is smaller in scale, it offers a comprehensive look at how Christmas celebrations take place around the globe—with no admission fee and easily accessible parking.

Festival of Lights
“I’ve had this planned for two months and had it on the calendar to come tonight,” said Nancy Karegianes at the exhibit’s opening. She and her daughter Maria are of Greek descent and were very interested in seeing the tree decorated for Greece. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

“Why go to Chicago when we’ve got this all right here?” asked Nancy Karegianes of Lansing, who attended the opening with her daughter, Maria. Being of Greek descent, they were very interested in seeing the tree decorated for Greece. The mother and daughter had been to the museum see the trees in the past, but it had been several years since their last visit. “I’ve had this planned for two months and had it on the calendar to come tonight,” she said at the exhibit’s opening.

Still educating

Dust, a retired teacher, is still using her time to educate. Most of the trees include placards with explanations on traditions of that country. The Festival of Lights is the place to go not only to see trees, but also to learn about customs. “Here you get up closer to examine ornaments and see artifacts from different countries,” Dust said. “So it has its merits.”

Festival of Lights
Museum Curator Barb Dust holds a Yule Lad ornament on the Iceland Tree. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Those artifacts she talks about range from toys to costumes to dolls to authentic ornaments from various countries that have been donated by Lansing residents. Dust provides some of her own artifacts as well, items she’s picked up from her travels—including Russian figurines, a Little Red Riding doll she got in Budapest, and Yule Lad ornaments from Iceland.

Iceland

Dust recounted the legend of the Yule Lads, explaining that these 13 mischievous creatures would visit kids in the 13 days before Christmas and play little tricks, but they would also leave little presents in the kids’ shoes.

Another old bit of Icelandic holiday lore is the “Christmas Cat,” a mythical feline who eats children who did not do their knitting. Since many families were too poor to purchase store-bought clothes, knitting was necessary work. If a child hadn’t knitted a pair of mittens by Christmas, it was said that the Christmas Cat would show up and eat her.

Dust also noted that because so few trees grow in the volcanic areas of Iceland, pieces of driftwood were collected and decorated instead of trees.

Festival of Lights
On the Lithuanian tree visitors will find real straw ornaments from a family in Lithuania. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Lithuania

On the Lithuanian tree visitors will find real straw ornaments that were given to Dust by a family on a trip to Lithuania. The tree is also adorned with detailed ornaments constructed of drinking straws. The ornaments were made at the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago.

Community contributors

The Italian Tree has ornaments that were made by Lansing Historical Society member Vanessa Nesbit, who made ornaments from a calendar of Italian Renaissance artists. Joyce Mulder decorated the Holland tree with porcelain Delft pieces.

Festival of Lights
Grace Bazylewski decorates the Poland tree each year and has handmade several of the ornaments. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Grace Bazylewski taps into her Polish roots in decorating the tree for Poland with handmade ornaments, including paper and eggshell ornaments. “They’re pretty traditional,” she said. “People couldn’t afford glass or bulbs, so they would use egg shells. They punch a hole in the bottom, blow them out, pour wax in and paint them.” Bazylewski explained that ornaments were made during the Advent season, and the tree would go up on Christmas Eve. “In our home, we would never dress up the tree before Christmas Eve,” she said.

Pickles and cookies

Paul Schultz, who decorated the German tree with his wife, Carol, recalled the German tradition of hiding a pickle ornament on the tree. The first of the children to find it would get a prize. The Schultz family continues each year with a pickle hunt on the tree. The first of the grandkids to spot it gets a two dollar bill from grandpa.

Festival of Lights
Near the back of the museum is a kitchen scene of cookies being prepared along with a recipe for pfeffernussen (“peppernuts”) cookies from Adele Schultz. Copies are available for visitors to take home. The recipe was prepared in kitchens of many of Lansing’s early German families. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Near the back of the museum is a kitchen scene of cookies being prepared along with a recipe for pfeffernussen (“peppernuts”) cookies from Adele Schultz. Copies are available for visitors to take home. The recipe was prepared in kitchens of many of Lansing’s early German families.

Cultures represented in Lansing’s 2017 Festival of Lights

  1. USA (Early American tree)
  2. Germany
  3. Holland
  4. Mexico
  5. Puerto Rico
  6. Philippine Islands
  7. Japan
  8. Ireland
  9. Scotland
  10. Great Britain
  11. Poland
  12. Italy
  13. Croatia
  14. France
  15. Africa
  16. Israel (Hanukkah)
  17. Lithuania
  18. Slovakia
  19. Sweden
  20. Iceland
  21. Norway
  22. Serbia
  23. Austria
  24. Hungary
  25. Greece
  26. Russia
  27. Victorian England
  28. Master Gardeners tree
  29. Village of Lansing tree
  30. L.A.C.E. tree
  31. L.A.R.C. tree
  32. Tatted lace trees (2)
  33. LHS Membership tree
  34. Military Patriotic tree
  35. African-American (Kwanzaa)
  36. History of the Christmas tree
  37. Angels and Nativity scenes
  38. History of the Lansing Santa House

Other themes

The Festival of Lights also includes trees with a theme that isn’t related to a country. The “Plane Tree” celebrates the Ford Tri-Motor; the “LARC Tree” showcases the work of local developmentally disabled adults; the Lansing Association for Community Events has a “LACE Tree;” and a “Patriotic Tree” decorated in red, white, and blue is dedicated to all who have served.

Festival of Lights
The Kwanzaa display includes a number of symbolic artifacts. A page of Kwanzaa history and a description of The Seven Principles are also displayed. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

When to visit

The Festival of Lights exhibit is located in the lower level of the Lansing Public Library (2750 Indiana Avenue). The exhibit is open Monday and Tuesday 6:00–8:00pm, Wednesday and Thursday 3:00–5:00pm, and Saturday from 11:00am to 1:00pm. Tours can be arranged at other times by calling 708-474-7497. Festival of Lights runs through January 6, 2018.