Christmas is a geography lesson at Northwest Intermediate School.
In the middle of the school's library/media center, a Christmas tree allows the school's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students to take a trip around the world.Librarian Kaaren Linton has collected ornaments from 51 countries, from Tonga to Malta and Denmark to Mexico, to boost students' geography knowledge as they learn about the Christmas traditions in other lands.
The whole project started in Chicago. As a child growing up there, Linton was fascinated with the annual, spectacular Christmas tree, covered with ornaments from foreign lands, in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
Last December, she decided a similar tree would be perfect as the Christmas centerpiece in her library, and it would be educational, too. So, she wrote the museum, asking for patterns of their foreign ornaments.
"They wrote back saying they didn't have any patterns. They explained they'd collected the ornaments by contacting the many ethnic groups in Chicago. They said, `Maybe if you start yours small, it will grow too,' " Linton said.
Linton wrote countries across the world, asking for donated ornaments. She contacted local churches and civic groups. She pleaded with friends going on vacation abroad to bring back a tiny piece of Christmas for her tree. She searched through gift shops looking for authentic ornaments under $2.
She and the Northwest students are thrilled with the response. Among the ornaments are fans from the Philippines, straw stars and angels from Austria, a hand-painted egg from Hungary, a bread-dough candle from Ecuador, a colorful cock from Portugal, a silvery spider web from the Ukraine and straw hearts from Denmark.
The tourist ministry from The Netherlands sent 24 tiny pairs of wooden shoes, which hang all over the tree. "The students really think they're neat," she said.
The government of Malta sent a papier mache Christmas crib, which sits under the tree.
During lunch and before and after school, students crowd around the tree, looking for ornaments of the country of their ancestry. In addition, during the daily announcements, students give a one-minute spotlight on a Christmas custom from the countries represented on the tree.
Classes from nearby Newman and Rose Park Elementary schools have come to "ooh" and "aah" at the colorful ornaments and hear about the legends associated with each one.
In the Ukraine, for example, the legend goes that the spiders in the home of a poor woman wove her webs as a Christmas present. When the first light of Christmas morning touched the webs, they turned to gold and silver.
"You may not have heard of the Ukraine before, but these kids, every time they hear of the Ukraine, will think of the spider web," Linton said.