On my Christmas tree filled to bursting with antique and vintage glass baubles is a single paper ornament. It is made from white paper drinking straws folded and woven to form a hefty candy cane shape. This ornament delights me; reminding me of the first time I visited Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around The World display. For those of you not from Chicago, this yearly show is a magnificent display of Christmas trees highlighting themes from different countries all over the world and giving a general explanation of the holiday customs and traditions of those countries.
Beginning in 1942 with one tree, the display today includes trees from over 50 countries with one massive central tree celebrating holiday traditions. In addition to the trees, MSI sponsors cultural performances on the weekends to go along with their Christmas Around the World display. For anyone in the Chicago area during the month of December, it is worth the trip to see these trees at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). You’ll definitely catch some holiday spirit and maybe get some decorating ideas.
I remember my first visit to Christmas Around the World. We went as a Brownie or Girl Scout group, it must have been in the mid 1960’s. I was overwhelmed! The size and variety of the trees was staggering. The beauty of the ornaments took my breath away but the one tree that sticks out in my memory was the one decorated with Lithuanian Straw Ornaments.
For me, this trees was the pinnacle of Christmas trees, totally decked out in white paper straw ornaments it had an almost ethereal look. The tree seemed to glow with only white lights and white ornaments. It made me want to learn how to make them. So I started saving my paper straws from my milk at school. Yes, we got little half pints of milk delivered to our classrooms each day right after recess with skinny white paper straws. Do they even have milk breaks in school anymore? I’m sure here in the Midwest, dairy states and all that, they still have milk breaks in some schools.
Mom thought I was bonkers hording my 6 inch paper straws. They were everywhere; stashed in my closet, in my dresser, under the bed, really all over my bedroom. I wasn’t ready to share my wish to learn to make these ornaments but, I made a plan. I knew I wanted to learn and I figured I’d need a lot of straws to complete enough to cover our tree at home. The worst part of this entire enterprise was I couldn’t even remember the name of the ornaments. So, my wish to make the straw ornaments dwindled with the passage of time and I eventually forgot my “big plan” to become an expert at straw ornament making.
It wasn’t until years later when I was an adult and returned to the MSI at Christmas time to see Christmas Around the World again that I remembered my “big plan”. I was still enthralled by the sight of the Lithuanian Christmas ornaments decorating the tree but, this time, I decided on a different tactic. I would just purchase some. Easier said than done; at the time there was no one selling them. It was a family tradition. The ability, the secrets, the finesse in making these beautifully lacy looking ornaments was handed down from one generation to another. It wasn’t until the internet let anyone and everyone post ideas for everything from gardening to making ornaments that I finally got a good idea how to make these lovely things.
The candy cane ornament that hangs on my tree is made by folding paper straws. I purchased it at a craft fair more than 30 years ago; the only time I’ve ever seen them sold. The more lacy looking Lithuanian Christmas straw ornaments are made essentially sewing the straws together to form a 3 dimensional shape. These shapes are made to look like snowflakes and stars, figures, houses and fanciful shapes decorated with frilly, curled straw carefully sewn in place to give the piece a little more pizzazz.
If you too want to learn, watch this tutorial on YouTube with Ona Keraminas making staudinukai, Lithuanian straw ornaments. Traditionally, these would have been made with wheat or rye straw, but Lithuanian-Americans will often use plastic drinking straws. Ona makes her ornaments with only scissors, a needle, string, and straws– absolutely no glue is used for her designs. The video is 10 minutes long but so worth watching. She so patiently sews the straws together to form a little ornament giving the viewer time to see and re-see the process. Near the end of the video Ona also shares her secret for curling the straw ends. Who knows? This may be the year I put my “big plan” into place and start making Lithuanian Christmas ornaments.
If you find yourself at Midway Airport in Chicago during the Christmas season, there is a huge Christmas tree decorated by local Lithuanian artisans. It’s lovely to see; so carve out a few minutes to find it should you be in the airport for a layover this holiday season.