Thanksgiving Reflections from France

Thanksgiving flashcards I used in my classes

This week in all my classes here in France, I am teaching my students about Thanksgiving. I talk about the history of the first Thanksgiving (I leave out the bit about the pilgrims later killing the Indians-they’re ESL students ages 6-11 so it’s a bit difficult) and I explain how and why we still celebrate Thanksgiving today.

I tell them how all over the United States, families and friends gather to have a meal together, and I teach them the traditional Thanksgiving foods: turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, etc. I explain why it’s called Thanksgiving—because we give thanks. Then I have them do an activity where they have to write a few things for which they are thankful.

And this is where my students look at me with a blank stare. I explain again (in French and in English) that we are going to write a few things that we have that we really appreciate, for which we are grateful.

One child asks, “Like a list for Papa Noel?”

“No, not a list of things you want, a list of things you already have that make you happy.”

I make a list on the board to help them, of ideas they can use. I say, “Maybe you are thankful for family, or friends, or your house, or your pets.”

After a while they start to catch on, but it surprises me how difficult this concept is for them. I thought it would be simple, that would all immediately come up with family, friends, toys. I wonder, is it just a difference in cultures? A language barrier? Or are all children like this these days?

It makes me a little sad that the notion of being thankful is difficult. I know that all of the students in my school are quite privileged, and have everything that they need and more. I think it’s so important that we teach children about the importance of being thankful and to appreciate what they have.

As I think about all of this, I have a newfound appreciation for the holiday of Thanksgiving. I think it’s wonderful that there exists a day dedicated to being thankful. Never mind that the other 364 days a year people may forget about this; at least there is one day where people come together to give thanks and truly appreciate all of the things and people they are so fortunate to have in their lives.

So for everyone back home in the US, or those of you celebrating Thanksgiving abroad (like me), please don’t forget the true meaning of this great holiday. As for me, this year, I am thankful for Thanksgiving.


Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 8

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

Sofia Vergara in "Undeck the Halls"

Today, the eighth day of novenas, is going to be a really short post. It’s almost Christmas, and things are getting busy! What I wanted to share with you today, Dear Reader, is actually a Modern Family episode. One of the main characters on the show is a Colombian woman played by Sofia Vergara, who is a famous Colombian actress. In the Christmas episode called Undeck the Halls from the first season, she talks a lot about different Colombian Christmas traditions and is trying to bring the traditions to her American family. It’s a good episode and talks about many of the traditions I have in my novenas posts. Here is a link to the episode:

Modern Family Colombian Christmas Traditions

Hope you enjoy it!

Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 7

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

In Colombia, Christmas decorations, especially lights, are quite popular. From the end of November on, stores become filled with garlands, strands of lights, and ornaments for people to decorate their homes with. Colombians also buy artificial Christmas trees, as real pine trees are hard to come by.

December 7, La Noche de Las Velitas, is the official day to put up Christmas lights and decorations. Medellin and Bogotá especially go crazy with Christmas lights. This year Medellin had 16 million lights around the city, and Bogotá had 7 million. Both of the cities give tours so you can see all of the lights. Some people also put up lights in and around their homes, and many apartment buildings also decorate the outside.

Almost all Colombian homes will have a Christmas tree and a nativity scene, or pesebre. The nativity scene is especially important because during the novenas friends and families gather around it to sing villancicos and say prayers. However, Christmas trees have not always been a typical tradition in Colombian; this custom came over from the States. Also, people used to have live Christmas trees, but this is now illegal so as not to harm the environment.

Here is a video of the lights in Medellin:

Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 6

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

Back for another day of Colombian Christmas Traditions! Today, the sixth day of novenas, I will be talking about aguinaldos. The literal English translation of aguinaldos differs because it can mean different things in different countries, but in this case it refers to games played during novenasContinue reading

Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 5

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

Spoiler alert: If you still believe in Santa Claus then you probably shouldn’t read any more.

In Colombia, Santa Claus, (Papa Noel) is not the bearer of gifts. Instead, it is Baby Jesus, or, El Niño Jesus/El Niño Dios who brings toys to the children at midnight on Christmas Eve, usually leaving gifts at the foot of the beds of the children instead of under the tree. Also, children write letters to Baby Jesus instead of Santa Claus and is placed in the nativity set for Baby Jesus to read.

The Papa Noel figure still exists and he can be seen in malls throughout Colombia, just like in the States, for children to have their picture taken with. Because Colombia is predominantly Catholic country, there is a more religious aspect to Christmas in Colombia than in the States, although Papa Noel has become more prevalent in recent years. Now it is more of a mix of El Niño Jesus and Papa Noel who brings the presents.

Whoever brings your presents on Christmas, have a wonderful holiday! And check back tomorrow for more on Colombian Christmas traditions!

Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 4

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

An important part of the novenas is the villancicos, or Christmas carols, that are sung every night. Villancicos are quite different from the typical Christmas carols we sing in English. There are no “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls;” the carols sung in Colombia are all more religiously focused, mostly on Mary and baby Jesus.

Villancicos are rooted in Spanish Catholic history and the tradition carried over to Latin America, with some changes, of course. Composers of villancicos came from many different Latin American countries, including Colombia. Some of the most well-known villancicos are Tutaina, Los Peces en el Río, Las Campanas de Belén, and Mi Burrito Sabanero. You can listen to Tutaina in the video above.

In Colombia villancicos are most commonly sung during novenas, when family and friends gather around the pesebre, or nativity scene. People also bring different musical instruments such as panderetas, tambourines, and claves to accompany the singing. If you want to listen to the other villancicos, they are all on YouTube!

Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 3

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

Yesterday I wrote about the different traditional Christmas food and drinks in Colombia, and today I have the recipes for you! If you want to see pictures or descriptions of anything, just read my post from yesterday here.

First, buñuelos. The easiest way to make buñuelos is with a pre-made mix; then all you need to add is cheese and water. However, if you can’t find the mix near you, then here’s how to make them from scratch:


2 pounds of Queso Fresco, very finely grated
1 ½ cups cornstarch
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup milk
1 tablespoon sugar
Vegetable oil for frying


Mix all ingredients together, minus the oil, until it is a soft dough. Then form the dough into ½ inch diameter balls. Heat the oil. To know if it is the right temperature, you should form a tiny test ball of dough and drop it in. It should sink to the bottom, and then count to 11. If it rises at 11 seconds, it is ready. If it rises too quickly, it is too hot. If it takes longer to rise, the oil is not hot enough. The trick to buñuelos is the temperature of the oil; it has to be perfect, so make sure you test the oil. They are done frying when they are a nice golden brown on the outside. Then place them in a bowl lined with paper towels and serve immediately.

Next, natilla. Natilla mix also comes in a box, but here is the recipe to make this delicious cake from scratch:

Time: 30 minutes                                                                                             Servings: 8-10


950 millilitres of milk                                                                                                             1½ cups cornstarch                                                                                                               ¾ cup brown sugar                                                                                                                 4 cinnamon sticks                                                                                                                    1 tablespoon cinnamon to sprinkle on top


Dissolve the corn starch into the milk. Add the brown sugar.
Cook over low heat, stirring constantly. When the sugar has fully dissolved and begins the milk has started to thicken, add the cinnamon sticks.
Continue to cook for about 15-20 minutes, stirring constantly. Then, take the cinnamon sticks out, and pour the mixture on to a large and slightly deep, tray.
Allow to set, place cinnamon sticks and sprinkle cinnamon on top, and serve.

Last, canelazo, a tasty drink you can serve all winter long. It’s perfect at Christmastime or on any cold day.


2 cups aguapanela (sugar cane drink)
1 cup aguardiente (Anise-flavored alcohol)
4 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon lime juice                                                                                                    Sugar for serving


Mix the aguapanela, aguardiente, cinnamon, and lime juice in a pot over medium heat. Simmer for about 7 minutes, without allowing it to boil. Cover the rims of the cups or glasses with lime and sugar and pour in the liquid and serve.

Happy cooking!

Colombian Christmas Traditions Day 2

**Every night for the nine nights before Christmas Colombians celebrate novenas, so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!**

Today is December 17, the second day of novenas, and my second of nine bog posts about Colombian Christmas traditions.

There are many foods that are traditionally eaten around Christmastime in Colombia. My personal favorite is buñuelos. Buñuelos are a delicious dough ball with cheese and are fried, so they’re nice and crispy on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside.


Natilla and paneton are typical Christmas desserts. Natilla is a cake with a texture a bit like flan and the primary ingredients are milk, panela, and cornstarch. People often make it with arequipe as well. Paneton is a more traditional cake, baked in a round form with a hole in the middle, and is usually made with dried fruits or chocolate chips.



The traditional Colombian family Christmas meal is served on Christmas Eve, and the main dish is turkey. Pretty much the only time you can find turkey in Colombia is around Christmastime.

Traditional drinks, which can be found all year round but are even more prevalent at Christmastime, are canelazo and hot chocolate. Canelazo is agua de panela with a shot of aguardiente and a bit of lime and sugar, and sometimes cinnamon as well. It is delicious and will warm you up right away. Hot chocolate is the same as anywhere else, but in Colombia people often melt cheese in the hot chocolate and then eat it or dip their bread in the hot chocolate.


Tomorrow I will have recipes for all of the foods mentioned today!

Beginning of Novenas

Today is December 16, and in Colombia, on this day begins the Christmas tradition of novenas. Every night for the nine nights before Christmas, Colombians celebrate novenas, and so I will be writing a blog post every day about Colombian Christmas traditions. Happy Holidays!

So what are novenas? Literally the word means “ninths,” for the nine days of celebration before Christmas. From December 16 – December 24, family and friends gather in a different person’s home each night to eat traditional Colombian Christmas food, sing Christmas carols in front of the nativity set (in Spanish, pesebre), and drink traditional holiday beverages.

Novenas are traditionally a religious custom; the nine days are symbolic of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus, and families gather to pray in front of the nativity scene. Some families continue this tradition, but also, especially for younger people, novenas are a time to gather together, eat, and drink.

La Noche de las Velitas

This past Thursday, December 8, was a holiday in Colombia. December 8 is the day of the Immaculate Conception, and on the eve before this holiday Colombians celebrate La Día de las Velitas (The Night of Candles). Continue reading