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Journeys of The Magi and Me



REC498 "Gifts of the Magi" by Jonas Soulouque

REC498 “Gifts of the Magi” by Jonas Soulouque

Of all of the symbols of Christmas, my favorite is The Three Magi.  Not coincidentally, I suppose, it is their journey that moves me.  At heart, I am an adventurer, and I know that they were too; undertaking a commitment of great distance, following a star to an unknown destination. What marvels did they see?  What hardships did they endure?  What lessons of men and mountains did they learn along the way?

According to what little historical background we can attach to their story, The Magi were Zoroastrian priests of Ancient Persia, an empire that at the time of Christ’s birth extended from what is now Central Turkey southward to the United Arab Emirates and east to Mongolia and the Indus Valley in India. The priestly class of the period was particularly avid in the study of astrology and astronomy and that these three apparently dropped everything in quest of a star could be equated to going abroad in the name of scientific inquiry.  Anticipation of discovery and the thrill of the adventure to unfold must have filled their hearts. What excitement they must have felt as they set out on their overland voyage!

Indeed, their journey was on my mind few years ago, early in the holiday season when I set out to run a quick errand.  I had been in the middle of decorating and had carefully arranged my Nativity set; The Magi leading their camels just so across the console table. Upon critical examination, however, I decided that I needed a couple of poinsettias or greenery at least, to complete the scene.  I jumped in the car to head out in IMG_1130 (640x480)search of same when I passed a Christmas tree lot that had the added attraction of offering camel rides. By golly!  I couldn’t drop everything to follow a star for months on end, but I had 15 minutes to stop and ride a camel.  So I did. Discovery and adventure do not belong only to The Magi.  It is something we share.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus




The Battle of Vertieres

The Battle of Vertieres is celebrated in Haiti today with parades and speeches by prominent public figures.  This sculpture by Julio Balan, called "Dancing in the Street" illustrates the joy and patriotic pride of the holiday.

The Battle of Vertieres is celebrated in Haiti today with parades and speeches by prominent public figures. This sculpture by Julio Balan, called “Dancing in the Street” illustrates the joy and patriotic pride of the holiday.

Today from coast to coast, Americans are observing Thanksgiving, in memory of our early history and a time when colonists and the native population worked together in friendship to insure the prosperity of all.  Their feast of celebration acknowledged the good fortune and security of a bountiful harvest and now, following the tradition of centuries, we commemorate that event with feasting, family, friendship, and collective reflection.

Ten days earlier, Haitians celebrated a national holiday of no less significance in terms of the mark of history upon their country.  The Battle of Vertieres was fought on November 18, 1803 and marked the beginning of the end of French tyranny on the island colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti and Dominican Republic, and the birth of the first free black republic in the New World.

General Francois Capois, along with General Jean-Jacques Dessaline, lead the momentous final assault near Cape Haitien on the northeast coast.  In a remarkable act of courage,  Capois rode into a fearsome barrage of French fire, head held high and colors flying.  His horse was killed and fell from beneath him, but the general kept up his charge, drawing his sword and urging his troops onward, crying, “Forward, forward!”  The opposing general, impressed with the unflinching bravery of his adversary, called a momentary cease-fire and sent a messenger, who told Capois, “General Compte de Rochambeau sends his compliments to the general who has covered himself in such glory.”  The messenger saluted Capois, turned on his heel, retreated to his position, and the battle thereupon resumed.

Despite the superior numbers of the 30,000-strong French Expeditionary Force sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Haitians gained the upper hand and forced the French to abandon the fight.    This defeat was a major blow to the French empire, having been cut off from its biggest source of income: the profits of plantation slave labor in Saint-Domingue. Immediately following the Haitian victory, Generals Petion, Dessalines, and Clarvaux met at Fort Liberte and laid out the foundations of the republic’s newly won independence.

Today the occasion is marked in Haiti with parades and speeches by public luminaries. View photos of the 2011 celebration as recorded by Adam Bacher in Cap Haitien here: http://portraitsofhaiti.com/category/cape-haitian/


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

The Tree of Life

RND489 by LaGuerre Dieufaite

RND489 by LaGuerre Dieufaite

In the Beyond Borders inventory, we have always had a wide and wonderful selection of Trees of Life.  In its many renditions, it has been steadfastly popular with our customers.  It has a timeless elegance, fits into many decorative schemes, and is naturally appealing.  It’s easy to love.

What’s interesting about it is how Man has understood it through time.  As a symbol, its roots (pardon the pun!) go back to ancient cultures as diverse as the Egyptians, Sumerians and Mayans. All three believed it to be, in some variation, the source of creation. The Tree of Life, with its branches reaching skyward and its roots plunging deep into the ground was viewed as the link between Heaven and Earth; uniting the realm above with that below.

Exulien Exuma sketching out a template of a Tree of Life

Exulien Exuma sketching out a template of a Tree of Life

Fast-forward a few millennia to the formation of Judeo-Christian tradition, where in the Book of Genesis, it was growing in the Garden of Eden, guarded by two cherubim and a flaming sword. It bore the Fruit of Immortality, but God insured its inaccessibility to Man. In the Book of Revelations, the Tree of Life is described as, “growing on each side of the river bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The Tree of Life as the Ancients saw it, linking Heaven and Earth.

The Tree of Life as the Ancients saw it, linking Heaven and Earth.


In more modern times, science has adopted the Tree of Life as a visual metaphor for genetic relationships and the interconnectedness of all living things. One 19th century theorist described it poetically, writing, “As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous branch out and overtop many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the Great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the Earth and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

In all visions; mythological, philosophical, religious, or scientific, the symbol strikes at the soul and its expression is glorious.

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Ring those wedding bells!


Evenson in Carmel, CA November 2011

Evenson in Carmel, CA November 2011

Last week, we received the following text message from Evenson Thenor, who visited us in California a little over a year ago.  He said,  “I would like to marrying 24 September 2013. Please send me big orders for my celebration.”

How exciting! We’ve been having all kinds of fun speculating about what his bride-to-be looks like, the favorite guess being that she was the original model for his sculpture called, “Angel Dance.”

She'd be a beautiful bride!  REC281

She’d be a beautiful bride! REC281




Haitian wedding traditions are colorful and festive, with an emphasis on music, dance, and community.  As you might expect, invitations are spread by word of mouth throughout the church and community of the bridal couple.  The bride and groom process together in the company of her bridesmaids to the church, which is festooned with colorful sheets and curtains.  The couple takes their place in front of the altar, where they are seated, facing each other throughout the ceremony. Lasting for up to 3 hours, the service typically includes several choral selections performed by the choir as well as bible readings by the pastor or priest, and sometimes poetry readings by a friend or family member. The marriage license is also signed at this time. The end of the ceremony is signaled by the wedding party performing an elaborate dance as they exit the church.

The reception, which lasts most of the rest of the day, includes a great deal of feasting and merry-making.  Gifts are often given, but cash gifts are considered to be in poor taste.  The bridal couple eats their wedding cake in their home a few days after the wedding. Of course, Evenson and his bride will put their own signature on their wedding; observing some traditions and perhaps creating one or two of their own.   However they choose to celebrate, it will be a special day, indeed.

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus


Erzulie Dantor – The Fierce Mother


The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

Thinking about Mother’s Day just around the corner, it seems fitting to recall the Haitian spirit of the “Fierce Mother,” Erzulie Dantor.  She is characterized as hard-working, independent, aggressive, wild and strong.  She is recognized as the great protector of children, and will go to any lengths to keep them from harm. Like any mother, she bears the pain of her children’s sorrow but  also radiates the joy of their successes. Erzulie Dantor is often depicted by the image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, an icon reportedly painted by St. Luke on a cedar table thought to have belonged to the Holy Family that somehow ended up in a monastary in Poland. Curiously, it was Polish Catholic soldiers fighting on both sides of the Haitian Revolution that brought the image to the nacient island nation, where it was quickly embraced and absorbed into voodoo culture.

Erzulie Dantor’s symbol, the veve, is drawn onto temple floors during religious ceremonies to summon her presence.  Meda Ulyssee has recreated that symbol in recycled metal.  Of course, he had all of the cultural background to communicate its meaning with hammer and chisel, but we  had to learn the story before we could fully appreciate the significance he struck into every detail. What we called simply “Meda’s Heart”  is actually much more.  On a pure and elemental level, it is a beautiful representation of the strength of a mother’s love.

Meda Ulyssee in his studio

Meda Ulyssee in his studio



Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Easter in Haiti

SM182 Cross by Michee Remy

SM182 Cross by Michee Remy

Easter week is a time of great celebration in Haiti and, as in so many other aspects of Haitian life; it is a combination of Catholic and Voodoo tradition.  Along with personal reflection and attending worship services focused on the last days of Christ on earth, Haitian Easter observances also include processions in which rara bands play a central role.  During the Lenten period, and continuing through Holy Week, these processions are loosely organized assemblies of musicians playing homemade drums, trumpets, maracas, bells, and whistles.  Dancers and singers perform as they follow along, clad in flamboyant, free-wheeling costumes.  These processions often grow and diminish during their course, and may carry political nuance as well as religious significance. Click here for a video portrayal of both Catholic observance and rara performance. http://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=A0oGdW4LZFBRmQ8AVtul87UF?p=easter%20celebration%20in%20haiti&fr=ush-mailn&fr2=sfp

Specialty foods for  Haitian Easter include cooked chicken, beets, rice, and black beans such as those prepared following the recipe below.   As they say in Haitian Creole, “Bonn fet Pak!”  (Happy Easter!)


2 cups dried black beans, picked through, rinsed, and soaked overnight

Hand-made trumpet used by rara band muscians.

Hand-made trumpet used by rara band muscians.

4 cups water

1 large onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

5 cloves minced garlic

2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. thyme

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1-4 oz. jar pimentos, drained and chopped

1/2 c. cider vinegar

1/2 c. vegetable oil

Drain soaked beans and add them to 4 c. water in a large saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Add onions, green pepper, garlic, bay leaves, salt, pepper, thyme and simmer the ingredients 1 hour longer, checking periodically and adding more water as necessary. Stir in vinegar, pimentos, and oil and remove bay leaves. Heat through and serve.

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus


Christmas in Haiti


Herald Angel SM84 by Winston Cajuste

With fireworks, favorite foods, and gift-giving, Christmas – or Nwel in Creole – is a great celebration in Haiti.  Preparations begin several days ahead of December 25th.  Decorating tends to be limited, but often includes a tropical Christmas trees which are harvested in the mountains and hauled down to be sold in the markets. Whether destined for a church or prosperous private home, the whole tree is festively trimmed with lights and ornaments while in more humble dwellings, only branches are used.

Music is a big part of the Haitian Christmas tradition.  There are live performances in the cities as well as television shows which feature celebrities of every stripe singing and dancing to familiar holiday tunes.  (Click here for a sample selection.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TFeHnxZwTQ  If you look carefully, you can see a Three Kings

Nadege Balan with her daughter wearing her new fancy sunglasses.

sculpture in the background!) The tunes have a clear

Caribbean beat with steel drums, bongos, marimbas, and horns as featured instruments.

On Christmas Eve, friends and families gather for merry-making.  A special meal is prepared that may include turkey,

ham, and/or shrimp, along with pate,

rice, beans and fried plantains.  Pineapple upside down cake is often the dessert of choice, and anisette is poured as liquid accompaniment.  Because Haiti is largely a Catholic country, Midnight Mass is very well attended, though it is not

Btutus Wiseton’s young son in his red school bus shirt with super powers.

unusual for serious partying to commence soon after the last “amen” and continue on through the night. This is also the time for gifts to be exchanged if the family can afford to do so.  Fireworks, usually homemade, light the dark Caribbean skies and there is dancing and singing in clubs and in the streets.

Children from even the most humble homes fill their shoes with straw and set them either by the tree, or out by the front door in anticipation of the arrival of Santa Claus, or as he is known in Haiti, “Tonton Nwel”. Late on Christmas Eve, Santa slips in undetected to give gifts great and small and vanish again without a trace. In Haiti, as around the world, the magic of Christmas lives.

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Skeletons and Black Licorice

October is upon us and the change of season is in evidence.

This skull (HT162) is made from recycled metal in Haiti. The Day of the Dead is celebrated exuberantly there and is known in Kreyol as “Fete des Morts.”

Leaves are turnining brilliant shades of red and orange and gold and perhaps you’ve had a glistening of frost as the morning sun has risen.  Change appears  in the markets, too as the fresh produce now includes squash, pumpkins and other gourds in a fantastic palette, as well as apples, pears, and delicious newly pressed ciders.  In our homes, we take down trimmings in summer hues and exchange them for those with a harvest theme, Halloween, or Day of the Dead.

Having grown up in the Midwest, harvest decorating came rather naturally to me, as did Halloween.  Day of the Dead took a little warming up to.  And a no small amount of instruction.  In fact, I thought ALL of those skeletons were a little creepy, if not downright macabre.  I didn’t understand the holiday as a form of remembrance and reflection, a time of happy memories of those friends and family who are no longer with us.  I didn’t get that in many places around the world, it is a time dedicated to going to cemeteries, tidying up the gravesites, freshening up the flower arrangements, having a picnic with special foods and sharing stories about loved ones who have “gone before.” That it’s actually much more like Memorial Day than a festival of witches and goblins for trick-or-treaters. (For a more detailed description, visit  http://www.celebrate-day-of-the-dead.com/)

The first time I took the plunge and decided to “go” Day of the Dead, I did so with some trepidation.  My father-in-law had passed away early in the summer and my mother-in-law, who was still very raw from the pain of loss, was visiting us for a couple of weeks.  I quietly started getting out old family photos and arranged some flowers in vases. I took the only three skeletons I had out and put together a shrine to my husband’s and my grandparents, explaining the Day of the Dead traditions as I understood them to my mother-in-law as I went along.  Then I turned to her and said, “How would you feel about putting one together for Pops?”  She thought a moment and said slowly, “I think that might be kind of nice.”  Pleased, I told her that I had to get off to work, but suggested that maybe she could think about what she might like to include while I was out.  The two of us could work on it together when I got home.

Imagine my surprised delight when I returned several hours later and my mother-in-law was at the door, waiting for me.  “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, pulling me inside, “but I did a little hunting and gathering around the house and kind of went ahead while you were out.”   She then proceeded to show me the shrine she had created for Pops in the dining room.  It was well thought out – tender, sentimental, very representative of the things that he loved in life, and the things we loved about him. There were several photos, a pair of candlesticks, a beer stein from Germany, a toy airplane, his old pilot’s license, a Hawaiian lei, and a Green Bay Packer bobble-head doll.  We went out and bought a package of black licorice, arranged some more fresh flowers, and remembered.  It was lovely.

Now, several years later, I continue the tradition we started.  I change a few things here and there, but I always enjoy the process.  This week, the skeletons are coming out – there are a few more of them now.  The framed picture of Grandpa and Grandma will emerge from the bedroom, the table scarf will do some time on the ironing board, and I realize as I watch the leaves drifting from the treetops down past the back window, it’s time to get Pops a new bag of licorice.

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