Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas in West Africa

Christmas is celebrated throughout West Africa in Christian communities - in fact, in some areas, even non Christians join in and celebrate. Though regional differences abound, returning home to be with family, attending midnight mass and/or Christmas day church service, and giving the gift of new clothes are prevalent ways of celebrating.   

Family celebrating Christmas in Ghana
Photo Credit: Jason Finch


Christmas is an important Christian holiday in Ghana, celebrated with church services, caroling, feasting, and giving small gifts. Houses and sometimes fruit trees are decorated with paper ornaments, and the most traditional gift is new clothes for a new year. Celebrations start in full with festive Christmas Eve church services, filled with singing from church choirs, dancing and a nativity play. Often after the service, there are joyous processions through the streets led by local bands. Sometimes the services and dancing goes on all night. On Christmas day, people come out in their traditional clothes and fill the churches. When they return home, they exchange gifts. Children are told that gifts are from Father Christmas. Christmas meal in Ghana is often rice and goat or chicken stew, or okra (gumbo) soup, porridge and pounded yam (fufu). Some people also go to church on the 31st December to thank God for sending Jesus Christ.

One of the Christmas greetings is a special Akan word "Afishapa" that means Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Akan is one of 79 languages spoken in Ghana.

There is also a special tradition in some areas of honoring midwives. The Ga people love to recount the legend of Anna, a woman who is said to have assisted in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and saved his life from a jealous king, and the story is told every Christmas. Midwives are honored by being showered with gifts. 

Nativity from Cote d'Ivoire
Photo Credit: Josh Hale

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our French Canadian Roots: Christmas Tradition of 'Le Réveillon' & Recipe for Tourtiere (Meat Pie)

We've been getting ready for Christmas, a time of year filled with so many traditions. As a family, we've "created" our own traditions over the years based on our preferences. It's also the time of year that we share with our children the Christmas traditions we grew up with - and the most important Christmas celebration for many French Canadians is 'Le Réveillon'.

Le Réveillon takes place Christmas eve. Families gather together, attend midnight mass and return to a feast, festive merriment and the opening of presents. "Réveillon" is the French word for "awakening" and everyone is up and awake for most of the night, getting sustenance to remain awake with the food (and libations) offered during the midnight meal. It's celebrated throughout Quebec, many areas in Northern Ontario and in many Acadian communities in the Maritimes.

Hubby and I both share memories of staying up for réveillon. Some of my fondest Christmas memories were when we visited my maternal grandparents over Christmas. Celebrations included my mothers seven brothers and sisters, and her very many aunts and uncles who came by after church. My earliest memories are rather blurry - not with time, but with the quality of dreams as I remember often nodding off to the sound of raucous singing of traditional French Christmas songs, desperately trying to stay up with the adults.  As I grew older, and my aunts & uncles started having children, celebrations became a little tamer. We started attending church earlier, first at 10pm, then at 8. We continued to gather afterwards at my grandparents for the traditional feast, and wait for Pere Noel to stop by at midnight (invariably an uncle who had stepped out). Gifts were handed out, and while the kids played the adults did their exchange before everyone headed home packing up their sleeping children.

The réveillon feast usually included ham, stew, cheese, crackers, patés and crudités. It has changed and adapted over the years, but there are 3 dishes that are always present: Tourtiere, Tarte au sucre, and Buche de Noel. The sugar pie is a delicious, incredibly sweet pie made essentially with sugar (find our recipe here) and is what I always looked forward to eating. Buche de Noel is a cake shaped like a yule log, and growing up it was always an ice cream log. I remember being so excited to be given the task to go down into the cellar and get "la buche de Noel" from the deep freeze. 

Buches de Noel (Christmas Logs)
Photo Credit: Appaloosa
The centerpiece of the réveillon meal is the tourtiere. It's a French Canadian meat pie, and essential for a proper réveillon. Hubby and my Acadian brother in law both remember looking forward to digging in to tourtiere the minute they were allowed, and don't consider it Christmas without one. 


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

West African Staple Food: Peanuts | Recipe for Biscuits Cinq Centimes {Five Cent Cookies from Senegal)

Peanuts, known as ground nuts in West Africa, are a staple food incorporated in many dishes (mostly savory), and a crop that grows well in many regions. They are the primary crop in Senegal, with peanut production taking up 40% of cultivated land and employing as many as a million people. 

A mound of peanuts in Kaolack, Senegal
Photo Credit: Karah 24
Les biscuits cinq centime (Five Cent Cookies) are a classic street food and sold in every market in the larger cities in Senegal - they are particularly popular in Dakar.

Clockwise, from far left: Shelling peanuts; harvesting peanuts; peanuts in sacks; peanuts, freshly harvested; removing peanuts from the plant to sell as fresh peanuts
Photos Credited to: Joseph Hill, adapted into a collage

Cinq Centimes Cookies

Cinq centimes cookies are butter cookies topped with peanut butter and crushed or coarsely chopped peanuts. Everything I've read about these suggests buying sugar or butter cookies, and topping them off, which would make this the easiest "recipe" out there. 

We did make our own cookies, following this basic butter cookie recipe. Be sure to roll the dough in a log, and once refrigerated long enough, slice into rounds. Bake them, and once they are cooled, spread peanut butter over them, and sprinkle with peanuts. These turned out really tasty. We didn't use all the cookie dough, so I froze the remaining log to use at a later date - perfect for the next time we can use a quick treat.


Find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:

Monday, December 8, 2014

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

Can I just say that I can't believe we are already well into December? Where has the time gone? I may possibly be feeling a little bit stressed about having everything ready and done on time for Christmas!

At least, the decorating has been done. This past weekend we went to get our tree. We were gung ho in the morning for a day out in the country - I even made a fresh batch of cookies and had a thermos filled with hot chocolate, and hubby packed a picnic. Then as we neared our destination, about 1 1/2 hours away, we found ourselves in freezing rain. If you've ever been to Nova Scotia, then you would know it's very important to check the weather forecast the morning of your outing - not count on the mild, dry weather called for the night before. All that early morning food preparation distracted us from this important step. Traipsing about a tree farm to find the perfect tree and cut it is great fun in the cold, in the snow, in grey weather - but not so much in freezing rain. (You can see how nice it was last year here). To the girls benefit though, I must say they weren't to be deterred. I was frankly taken aback. I certainly didn't want to get soaked. So we planned on getting one near the parking area, and lo and behold the perfect tree was right there waiting for us! By the way, lots of other families were headed out in the rain through the farm - which had me feeling a bit wimpy, but likely also much drier :) 

My sister, brother in law and five year old nephew met us there, and after their tree was cut, also near the parking area, we headed to a working 19th century farm for their Christmas in the Country event. It was a lot of fun - Elle made some crafts, we tasted plum pudding for the first time (if you don't like raisins - and we don't - you won't like this no matter how much you want to), and generally enjoyed the old fashioned, country Christmas feeling. It's been great having so many community Christmas events to enjoy. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Traditional Senegalese Wrestling

My family and friends would possibly be surprised to see me writing about wrestling - any form of it. I don't think I've ever watched more than a few seconds of American wrestling because the idea of two grown men (or women) duking it out as a means of entertainment holds no appeal to me. Yet while looking for photographs of gris-gris for a craft we did a short while ago, I kept coming across these wrestlers wearing them. While showing the girls, it peaked all of our interests, and here is what we've learned.

Many cultures have a traditional form of wrestling - here are a few, just off the top of my head: Mexican Lucha Libre; Indian Kushti; Japanese Sumo; the sparring of Chinese Martial Arts; and of course professional wrestling seen in North America. 

Historically, traditional wrestling was an initiation rite among the Serer people and a preparatory exercise among the warriors. Today, it's the number one national sport, surpassing even soccer (football) in its popularity. There isn't a town or village that doesn't have a wrestling arena. Although there are two forms of wrestling in Senegal (laamb is Senegalese wrestling that includes striking), traditional wrestling does not allow for striking the opponent and has the largest number of participants. Matches usually take place on a sandy surface, and the winner is the one to cause his/her adversary to fall to the ground first. Champions become national celebrities and are well compensated. The younger generation is especially enthralled, and the underprivileged see it as a potential means to change their social standing. In fact, the popularity of Senegalese wrestling has increased proportionately to the decrease in economic stability in Senegal (currently the unemployment rate is approximately 48%).

Professional Senegalese Wrestling Match.
Notice all the gris-gris (charm/amulet) worn by the wrestlers around their arms, chest, stomach and legs.
Photos adapted as collage - original photo credit to Serigne Diagne (CC)

In most of the country, wrestling matches are only between men, though there is a region in southern Senegal (Casamance) with a long history of female wrestling. BBC Africa has a great photo slideshow of Senegalese women wrestlers and the traditions found at their matches here

Senegalese wrestling at the beach in Dakar, Senegal
Photo Credit: Sebastien Lafont (CC)

What's most interesting (to me) is that wrestling isn't seen as just a sport, but a vital part of the culture as it incorporates Muslim, animist beliefs and Senegalese folklore (90% of the population in Senegal is Muslim). Whether a professional match in a stadium, or a neighborhood match at night, Senegalese wrestling is where sport meets mysticism. 

These men are performing The Simba - The False Lion Dance - as part of the spectacle & ceremony prior to a wrestling match.
Photo Credit: Robin Presta

Monday, December 1, 2014

Our Weekends in a Nutshell

I have been remiss. My father - provinces away, proud grandpa - pointed out that he hasn't seen updates about our family time. Admittedly, a lot of it is spent on homework - but we have ventured out for a few seasonal activities. 

Over the past two weekends, we enjoyed two Christmas festivals. We headed to the picturesque town of Mahone Bay for the Father Christmas festival, where the town has many life sized Father Christmas' throughout (bottom left photo). We go there nearly every year, though the girls have outgrown the gingerbread house making station. Elle still loves to make them, just not in a room full of strangers.  We checked out a gingerbread house competition, participated in a cookie walk while Elle pointed out which cookies were worthy, were amazed at the Land of Christmas fantasies and got a mini tree from Charlie Brown's tree lot.

We also enjoyed A Victorian Christmas at our city's fort (Citadel Hill) complete with old fashioned carolers, dancing and Father Christmas. After much grumbling from the proud teens, I got us all in front of the green screen offered during that day's events for the silly postcard seen below - my fake "we're barreling down a hill" facial expression looks a little demented, and the girls got the only two adult sized Santa hats so that mine would be better off on a cat, and why wouldn't Elle be holding a large plastic candy cane?. Yup, silly. And I love it :)

All in all, a great start to the festive (and busy) season ahead!

(I'm also quite happy to report that I finally have my other website up! Now to see how well I manage both blogs! www.nsfamilyfun.ca)

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