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Sharing Traditions in the Holiday Spirit

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page A21

European countries take center stage this week in showcasing their hallowed traditions of yuletide.

Norway's ambassador to Washington, Knut Vollebaek, kicked off the season by inviting a group of gospel singers who perform at the Corcoran Gallery to serenade guests at a dinner Monday. Last night, Princess Martha Louise, a member of the Norwegian royal family, lit the traditional Christmas tree at Union Station. The princess, who is expecting her second child in April, recently moved to New York with her husband and family.

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The Christmas tree was set up in the station's grand foyer for the eighth successive year with Norwegian fanfare, bells and train displays. Norway's tradition of sponsoring the tree, which this year was cut down in Iowa, is a gesture of gratitude to the United States and the Allies for coming to the aid of Norway when it was under Nazi occupation in World War II. Vollebaek said he hoped that the tree would bring Norway, Europe and the United States closer.

Today, Frans van Deale, the ambassador of Belgium, will participate in the illumination ceremony involving 450,000 lights at the visitors center at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Kensington. The embassy of Switzerland has invited guests for a holiday reception tomorrow with raffles and prizes, but no speeches.

Next Monday, Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson will host his fifth Santa Lucia party. As part of the traditional event, with includes a holiday buffet, Swedish maidens serenade guests and wear lighted candles in special holders positioned on their heads.

At the Finnish Embassy, Ambassador Jukka Valtasaari's chef is the untitled champion of gingerbread castles and sugary delicacies. The embassy has been marking the 10th anniversary of its building with unique festivities in recent days.

The Lobster Boys, a group of Finnish comedians, did musical renditions last Thursday night, using their voices and bodies to imitate instruments. The lyrics of "House of the Rising Sun" were doctored into "House on the Embassy Row."

More soberly, 150 guests were entertained by jazz pianist Heikki Sarmanto and tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, two icons of Finnish jazz.

The embassy's modern glass building, at 3301 Massachusetts Ave., was inaugurated in November 1994. As part of its celebrations, the embassy paid tribute to D.C. schoolchildren and the 36 Washington trolley drivers who have made the building known to thousands of tourists.

Speaking of District students, the D.C. Youth Orchestra will perform a special concert Saturday afternoon featuring a program of Bach and Beethoven. The event is sponsored by Luigi Einaudi, acting secretary general of the Organization of American States, and Enrique Iglesias, president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

The orchestra has been in existence for 44 years, admitting children ages 4 and 5, who are then trained and acknowledged in their schooling by experts such as Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. The performers are a talented group of teenagers and the orchestra has toured in Spain, Austria, South Africa and Japan.

"Since my job is turning me into Scrooge, I needed to do something for the city, which has hosted the OAS since the days when President Harding was able to drive his wife to the White House in a horse and pony cart, and for the beauty of music, of course," Einaudi said.

He will be delivering a report on his seven-week stewardship of the organization, which is grappling with reforms in Colombia and preparations for elections in Haiti. It is facing tough criticism because of the previous secretary general's handling of presidential elections in Venezuela.

Heading Back to the United Nations

Sweden's Eliasson was selected last Wednesday to serve for a year starting in September 2005 as president of the U.N. General Assembly. Eliasson, who will complete five years in Washington next summer, said he has mixed feelings about leaving the city. But he said he feels the one-year assignment will be important as the United Nations undertakes a set of reforms and development challenges.

Eliasson was Sweden's U.N. ambassador from 1988 to 1992 and the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs from 1992 to 1994. "For me, it will be like going home," he said in an interview after arriving from Sweden late Monday. "It will not be an easy task as the U.N. is facing many challenges, a fork in the road, as Secretary General Kofi Annan said. Can multilateral institutions be effective?

"I think the U.N. charter is a good document," he said. "If we were to abolish the U.N., we will turn around and create something similar the next day, so why not improve the existing one?"


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