Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

how to make a Vesak lantern

One of the most common search engine phrases that brings people to this blog is “how to make a Vesak lantern” so I’ve decided to post step-by-step instructions. I mean, who better than a half-Jewish white girl from Canada, right?

Vesak is the Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment day and death day and is celebrated on the full moon in May. It’s a big deal in Sri Lanka. We’ve celebrated it there and also here in Toronto. Please keep in mind this is not how my children’s father made his Vesak lanterns. He likes to remind me that they didn’t have bendy straws or twist ties and they had to splinter bamboo sticks and then tie them together with string or flexible rubber bits that they pulled off trees and no he can’t remember what kind of tree.

There are lots of styles of Vesak lanterns. We’re making this kind:


Credit for all techniques goes to my mother-in-law who made that one when we were all in Berlin back in 2009.


  • bendy straws
  • twist ties or string
  • cardboard
  • tissue paper
  • scissors
  • glue
  • tape
  • wire or string to hang the lantern
  • small candle that will stand up on its own (like a votive or a tea-light)

Take four straws and bend them 90 degrees. Squish the shorter end and insert it into the longer end of the next straw to form a square. Do this six times to make six squares.


Using twist ties or string, attach four of the squares together at the corners to form a ring:


Then attach one square to the top and one square to the bottom by tying (or twist-tying) all four corners.


Now cut a cardboard rectangle to fit inside one of the straw-frame squares. This is going to form the bottom of your lantern where the candle is going to sit. Tape it in place. Don’t let the cardboard extend beyond the straws because that will get in the way of the tissue paper that we’re glueing on next.


Now cut four squares and eight triangles of tissue paper. Measure out the first square and triangle by placing the straw frame on the tissue paper and tracing the outside of the shape. Make your tissue squares and triangles just a bit bigger than the straw frame but not much. You only need enough at the edges to wrap about half-way around the straws. Alternate your colours however you like.


Put glue around the edge of your square or triangle and glue it on to the straw frame. I find that liquid white glue works better than glue sticks. It’s a bit wet and messy but it holds well once it dries. And this year I didn’t even have to do it because my kid and her friend now have enough manual dexterity and perfectionist tendencies to manage it themselves!




Make sure not to tissue over the top: guaranteed to send your lantern up in smoke. Once all your tissue paper is in place, your lantern is constructed and now we move on to decorations!

To make a frill around the bottom of your lantern, fold a piece of tissue paper like a fan, leaving a band unfolded at the top. Then, holding your scissors at an angle, cut into the folded portion at about 3 cm intervals. Don’t cut into the band at the top.

Next, unfurl! This very dramatic trick shocked me at the ripe old age of 34 when I first saw my mother-in-law gently shake out a banner of zig-zagged tissue fringe. Am I the only one who missed this trick back when I fan-folded every piece of paper I came across? Am I? When you cut on an angle you get zig-zagged fringes! I had no idea.


Glue your dramatic zig-zagged fringe around the bottom of your lantern. Poke two small holes in the tissue near the top and make a handle out of wire or not-so-flammable string to hang the lantern.


You’re done! Unless you like more decorations. If you do, you can add tissue paper ruffle along all the seams to hide the tissue overlap and glue blobs. Just cut a strip of tissue paper and glue it scrunchily (that’s a word) along the seam. You can also cut out snowflakes to enhance the sides and tape or glue them on. We haven’t done that yet but you can see the scrunchies and the snowflakes on the finished lantern at the top of this post.

Put a candle on the base, wait for it to get dark and light ’em up! (The cylindrical lanterns are from the dollar store. It takes too long to hand-make enough lanterns for a good display. Don’t judge me).

Happy Vesak!


a neighbourhood gem

We’re in Sri Lanka for the month visiting K’s family. Since I met K about 10 years ago I’ve spent many months here. I would have said I knew the immediate neighbourhood pretty well. The road we live on is curvy with numbered lanes poking off of it. I’ve gone on lots of walks and have been down each dead-end lane, surprising dogs behind the gates and drawing interested stares from kids in their yards. I hadn’t explored nearly enough, however, as I found out the other day.

On this trip I wanted to find a swimming pool where I could swim lengths. We mentioned this to K’s aunt who lives next door and she said she knew a place. And she knew a shortcut:

You go out of the gate and down the road…

…then, before you get to the main road, you turn down what I always thought was someone’s driveway…

…at the end of which, on your right, you will find a totally awesome secret passage!

…which leads to a well (Look in. Don’t fall in. No you can’t climb up. No you can’t throw anything down there).

Further down the path you find a metal door. Open it, walk past the stables, say hi to the horses…

…they’re really very pretty pointy-eared horses…

… and turn the corner to find this:

Ahem. This is about a seven-minute walk from our house. I never knew! I knew about the horses but not about the pools (and would never have found the shortcut). On previous trips we have piled into the car to drive to one of the fancy hotels where we pay a non-guest fee to use the pool. As of yesterday we have a one-month membership to this place and have already spent a total of five hours in the pool. Akka jumps confidently into the deep end and swims to the ladder (a new trick). Malli has yet to generate propulsion with his tremendous splashes but he’s learning.

The playground has seen better days. The swing set, a branch of which hangs over the baby pool, makes me think of nothing but tetanus shots but the kids seem to like it.

After swimming we rested in the shade with some drinks (if this place served beer and food I might never leave).

The seven-minute walk home took about twenty as we explored the new paths, sidestepping the brush fire and pausing to look down the well.

While they were swimming I read a book review in the New Yorker about how the over-protective, hovering parenting style common to North America is creating inept, spoiled, incompetent and frightened young adults. So while we walked home I did not tell them not to touch the fire and I did not tell them not to fall down the well. I must trust that at five and seven they can avoid hazards as obvious as these. (I will be reflecting further on the article and plan to discontinue all sorts of coddling things I still do for them out of habit).

The secret passage is delightfully strewn with drawing-rocks which had to be collected and tested on the walls.

The good rocks came home with us. No, I won’t carry them for you (spoiled! incompetent!) but I will show you how to carry them in your shirt; a life skill I believe to be valuable despite its ranking well below fire-and-drowning-avoidance.

R is for rambutan

Akka has been learning to write Sinhala letters. She picked up where she left off with Achchi last summer and is practicing her handwriting at the daycare next door. Her teacher started her off with ‘ra’ because it’s one of the simplest letters:

On each page, the teacher draws a picture, then writes a letter with dashed lines for Akka to copy, leaving a few spaces for her to try the letter herself. Starting with ‘ra’, she drew a bunch of red balls and said “Ra is for rambutan”. Akka looked perplexed. What’s a rambutan?

It’s a fruit, very much like a lychee, that happens to be in season right now so we’ve filled our tummies with them and the kids still shriek “rambutan!” when they see the red spiky peels discarded on the ground.

Next letter:

for mala. Flower: easy. Akka recognized the drawing and set to work tracing the letter.

Next letter:

for tire. The teacher drew a black tire. No problem.

Next letter:

for udella. The teacher drew a tool, like a large hoe, with a shovel piece at a right angle to a long wooden handle. It’s for digging. There’s really no translation. Thankfully a new house is being built on the daycare grounds and the workers dig the foundation pits with udella. We showed her one, and off she went to draw her curly letters. Next was A for ala (potato).

So it went. Some letters stood for things she knew, and some stood for words specific to Sri Lanka, or to hot climates. Fruit are a favourite letter-teaching tool but where we Canadians use grapes for G and peaches for P, here it’s rambutan for Ra and labu (papaya) for La.

A is for apple. B is for baby. Or ball. Or boat. But not bank and never bum or bait. They’re always nouns and I suppose they’re words that we know young children will recognize. Even in English there are variations. When I was a kid in a British-English-speaking school, T was for flashlight (torch) and L was for truck (lorry).

Leafing through some alphabet books at the shop, I was made to realize that my Apple Ball Cat Dog Elephant Fish assumptions for letters in English are not necessarily widely-held. In two different books I found that A is for ass (ahem – donkey), G is for gun, P is for pistol and T is for tank. I was a little surprised; weaponry being mostly excluded from children’s books back home. U can’t branch out from uniform or umbrella and Q only ventures from queen to quilt or sometimes quill. X-ray feels like a stretch and I draw the line at X-mas tree. Xylophone gets no relief.

what’s in a name?

When we come to Sri Lanka we do a certain amount of visiting. We drop in on K’s relatives, drink tea, smile and move on to the next house. I think I’ve got the hang of these visits now but they used to confound me and they still do bring up lingering questions like: Why doesn’t anyone ever introduce themselves and why am I never introduced?

Answer: People rarely use names. And they all know who I am already so there’s no need to introduce me. And, even though I didn’t realize it at first, I already know who they are too.

Children are called ‘baba’ (baby) until they’re about five years old, maybe longer. Adults refer to children and children refer to each other by their sibling names: Akka and Ayah for older sister and brother, Nangi and Malli for younger sister and brother. People your parents’ age are Auntie and Uncle. People your grandparents’ age are Achchi and Seeya. Even within families, names are sometimes not known. Last night at dinner, an uncle stumbled over his nephew’s name and needed reminding. Another uncle was unable to answer when I asked him the name of his new baby granddaughter. “We just call her sudu-baba [fair-skinned baby],” he said.

I’ve got the family tree mentally mapped out and I usually know who is sitting across from me. I understand that a particularly young aunt may be known as an older sister. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it works. The only confusion remains when I try to refer to someone and I have to mention the colour of their house or the date we visited to make myself understood. ‘No, not the daughter of the aunt who was married to the Navy guy, the daughter of the aunt who was married to the Army guy. No the younger one. Right: her.’

The other day we went to see Saddhu Maama (Priest-Uncle). He’s a Buddhist priest. Saddhu Seeya to the kids.

I like visiting Saddhu Maama. He doesn’t speak any English. The first time we went, I was alarmed to see K. and his mother bow down to the ground in front of him as we arrived. Not alarmed by the action but alarmed because no one had warned me. Was I supposed to do that? How is it done? How far down do you go? Do you touch the ground? His feet? Nothing? How do you do it while holding a baby? I settled for an awkward half-bow, hands pressed together, and that seemed sufficient.

I’ve been to visit him four or five times. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know my name. I don’t know his. I think it’s ok, though, because his nephew doesn’t either.

product credibility

The kids are getting eaten alive by mosquitos. We’ve been clearing standing water from around the house, sleeping under nets, and slathering them in repellent. Still, they get bitten. The latest weapon in the war on bugs is an electric mosquito swatter. It looks like a tennis racquet but, when you hold a little button as you swipe, it electrifies and zaps the mosquito with a little sizzle and a whiff of burnt-hair smell. It’s very satisfying.

The packaging is an extra bonus.

“Hey,” I say to K. “It says this is a credible product.”

“An incredible product? That’s good.”

Nothing so arrogant as that. “Nope. Just credible”.

The rest of the bag is adorned with images of the Durable Electrical Swatter Factory where, one presumes, these things are manufactured by happy workers. Unfortunately it’s a bit hard to see what they’re working on in their large-scale teams on advanced equipment while assuring quality under standard management (with complete certificates). I, for one, appreciate their efforts and hope they are fairly compensated.

Hoo! Hoo! Peligro!

We’re in Sri Lanka, visiting K’s parents and staying in the beautiful orange house that K. designed and built next to the house he grew up in. Our kids have been here before but Malli doesn’t remember. Akka, however, has astounded me with random sparks of memory like recalling the details of striped sheets that she last slept on when she was two and a half.

For both kids, the differences between Toronto and Colombo are now apparent. What they notice most are breaches in the safety code they’ve internalized. ‘Dangerous!’ they announce, upon spotting a clutch of people standing on the exposed steps of a moving bus. ‘That’s not good’, they say, as a motorcycle speeds past carrying a family of four. We carry them to push through crowds getting on and off buses while they muse that the driver will wait for us (he won’t). We leave impressions on their wrists from holding them tightly next to the open door on a moving train. They gape as people disregard the sign and “entrain” and “detrain” before the train is stopped.

They’ve been attending the half-day daycare run by K’s aunt next door. On their second day they watched, wide-eyed, as their cousin arrived at daycare standing up in the front seat of a car.

“The front seat?!,” Malli inquires.

“Yes, kids sometimes ride in the front seat in Colombo,” I say.

“Can we try that?,” he ventures.

A couple of weeks ago, in Toronto, the kids were playing in the garage. I had to move the car and invited them to sit in the front seat, unbuckled, while I adjusted the parking arrangement. They were beside themselves. So thrilled! This tiny step outside the daily safety routines of car seats and seat belts and bicycle helmets and staying-on-the-sidewalk was an unexpected treat. And here in Colombo, they see a whole urban population flouting these rules, elevating bus and three-wheeler riding, car and motorcycle driving to untold heights of adventure.

Meanwhile they’re the only two kids in the city wearing seat belts. We even have a car seat that we left here when Akka was a baby. By Canadian rules, they should both still be strapped in to these seats but even I balked at carrying a second car seat around the world for a five year old child whose Sri Lankan counterparts are riding on dashboards. K. is good at keeping to the left and negotiating the motorcycles and three-wheelers and buses that head straight for you, lights flashing to signal that you’d better move out of the way because they are not moving out of the way. He knows the rhythm of the roads here. He understands that the lines painted on the asphalt are mere suggestions, not real lanes. Still, I can often be found twisting and squirming in my seat as we pass within a few centimetres of the next vehicle because I know the truth: he learned to drive in California.

vesak lanterns

Last December I wrote about our mixed-bag of holiday celebrations and looked forward to including a Buddhist holiday in the mix. The full moon in May is Vesak: Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment day and death day. In 2006 we were in Sri Lanka for Vesak and bought lanterns to hang in the trees.


This year we’re in Germany where the streets are not lined with road-side lantern sellers. Thankfully, we have an expert lantern-maker here to help. We scoured the neighbourhood (and learned the German words for) bendy-straws, tissue paper, wire and glue.  Then Akka and her Achchi worked all afternoon to create two beautiful Vesak lanterns.

IMG_4637 IMG_4643 IMG_4647

Akka with her lanterns, Vesak 2006 and Vesak 2009:



The finished products, along with two rainbow lanterns that we did find in a toy shop (inside on the first night due to torrential downpour):


Today we travelled out to the edge of the city to join Das Buddhistische Haus‘ Vesak celebrations.



Then back home where we were able to hang the lanterns outside. The trouble with Vesak celebrations this far from the equator is it’s hard for the kids to stay up late enough to see the lanterns lit up in the dark. Akka put in a good effort but was in bed before the candlelight really shone through her creations.