Christmas and other December holidays are observed around the world, and the season reminds us that sometimes the extended Family of Man can get together for a good time.
Second-graders at Soldotna Elementary School learned that lesson, with a bit of world geography thrown in, Wednesday when eight foreign high school students visited their school.
The teens, who are attending central peninsula high schools through the Youth for Understanding exchange program, shared information about their home countries and traditional holiday customs.
"This has been neat because the kids, before we started, didn't know where these places were," said teacher Sherri Baktuit, who organized the get-together.
Each of the eight sat at a table with photos, flags and other mementos of their six home countries on four continents. Children found their countries on maps and interviewed them based on a list of questions. The exchange students signed printed "passports" students carried and wrote Christmas greetings in their native languages.
Hee Woon Eum, from Korea, and Rebecca Yamoah, from Ghana, wore handsome outfits based on traditional clothing. Eum attends Nikiski Middle-Senior High, and Yamoah is at Skyview High south of Soldotna.
Nicolas Kneba is attending Skyview, too.
"I am from Germany, and that is way far away from Alaska," he said, introducing himself to a group of children.
He brought homemade spritz cookies, a big hit with the second-graders. He showed them a small advent calendar his parents had sent him and explained how European children open a paper window each day throughout advent to count down the days until Christmas.
"It makes the time a little bit shorter," he said.
The children were intrigued when he told them Germans open their presents on Christmas Eve.
The three German students, Rebekka Marks, Imme Schwenteit and Kneba, serenaded the children with a rendition of the classic carol, "Stille Nacht," the original of "Silent Night."
The other exchange students participating were Alejandra Rivera from Mexico, Hong Chen from China and Iiva Gulane from Latvia. They are attending school at Skyview, Nikiski and Kenai Central.
The youngsters puzzled over the fact that the Asian countries used different alphabets than ours, and they gamely tried pronouncing phrases like "feliz Navidad" and "frohliche Weinachten."
Afterward, students of all ages expressed enthusiasm for the contact.
"The people were real nice," said Austin Druce, an 8-year-old in Baktuit's class.
"Some people celebrate Christmas kind of different from Americans like us," he said. "... We use stockings, but they use their shoes."
Shay Poole, a 7-year-old in Cindy Hurst's class, said she enjoyed learning about other cultures.
"I learned that in Mexico they eat different things, and in Germany they have McDonald's like us," she said.
The international fair was a natural extension of a holiday project her class worked on, Baktuit explained. The students did a play called "Christmas Around the World" and learned to say "merry Christmas" in Italian, Spanish, German and Swedish.
Parent and Parent Teacher Association President Lauri Lingafelt first suggested bringing in a foreign exchange student to speak with the class. But after Lingafelt contact YFU volunteers, the meeting grew to include more exchange students and both second-grade classes.
Nikiski resident Patti Floyd accompanied the teens to the elementary school. She is the field director for YFU's Alaska and Washington program. This year YFU has 44 students in Alaska and 29 in Washington.
"It's a real plus for our schools. Our kids, who perhaps don't get as much of a world view, it gives them a chance to get a new perspective," she said.
YFU volunteers here are particularly excited, Floyd said, about having Rebecca Yamoah from Ghana this year. Yamoah is the first African YFU has placed on the Kenai Peninsula.
Baktuit said the gathering was a unique learning opportunity.
"I am hoping it will become a yearly event," she said. "I am really impressed with how these high school kids are working with the younger kids."
In a time of war and uncertainty, teaching children about other countries and the people who live in them has a new sense of urgency. It helps people see each other's human side and fosters peace, she said.
"Especially with everything going on in the world today, this is really nice for the kids."
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