Memories of a Polish Christmas By Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke, December, 2005
Christmas Eve is approaching. I feel a quickening of my pulse, and revisit in memory the holidays of my childhood ... I'm enchanted and excited as I await the arrival of my siblings and their families. We celebrate in my parents' home in West Rutland, Vermont. In addition to Mama Kamylla, and Tata Czeslaw, there are piec siostry i piec braty (5 sisters and 5 brothers), their spouses, children, and me, the youngest sibling. We sit around a beautifully crafted, long dining room table, awaiting Mama's cooking.
I was too young then to recall when three of my brothers (Joseph, Stanley, and Alexander) were recruits in World War II, and only recollect their pictures, dressed in U.S. Army uniforms on the mantle in the dining room. So, I must guess that they weren't around the table during my first Christmases. In later years, my youngest brother Valentine enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
Sharing of oplatek (oh-pwa-tek) is at the essence of Polish Christmas Eve celebrations, a centuries old Christian tradition. It is the same wafer used for Communion during the Holy Mass, except this oplatek is unblessed. This is how the wafers are made - the flour and water dough is poured on one side of a rectangular iron, the other half closed over, and the iron held over a fire until the wafer is baked. In my hometown, the oplatek was made by the parish's Felician Sisters. The white, rectangular shapes were embossed with Holy Christmas scenes. Each family member would approach the others to break off a piece of wafer, and wish each other Wesolych Swiat!
I vividly recall the room and table settings, lively conversations, and playing with nieces and nephews - I was more like a big sister than an aunt, since they were not too far from me in age. Some siblings came from Michigan or New York, some lived in town or elsewhere in Vermont. Some were only up the avenue, or a mile or two from the homestead. I remember Mama's hair in pin curls, and my sisters too - Mary, Julia, Theresa, and Helen - pinned up in preparation to attend Midnight Mass later that eve.
A large assortment of food always included the traditional fish - generally cod in our home, potatoes, a compote made of dried fruits in a sauce, home baked and Christmas breads from the Polish bakery (Rozmus's Bakery) a short walking distance away - for days the aromatic odors of baking dough delighted the neighborhood! There was a delicacy of cooked yellow peas, dry yet moist, a dried fruit-in-sauce compote, and raisins, nuts and a sauce rolled in a pastry.
Here is a Polish recipe for Kompot z Owocow Suszonych (Dried Fruit Compote), though I'm not sure this is exactly how my Mama made hers. It uses 1 lb. mixed dried fruit, 2 cups of water, grated rind and juice of 1 lemon, 6 whole cloves, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar. Rinse and soak the fruit in 2 cups of water overnight. Add the sugar and heat till it dissolves. Add the lemon juice, rind and cloves. Refrigerate ... and let me know if you like the result!
After dining, we gathered around the high-to-the-ceiling podlaznik (Christmas tree), decorated with decades worth of fragile ornaments, overlaid with icicles and tinsel, and colorful strands of tree lights, and placed by the same window each year. The eldest sibling (Chet) usually provided a tree cut down from some rural lot. I recall climbing the (very) high ladder to reach the top, working downwards to decorate the fragrant evergreen, after Tata nailed the tree to its criss-cross, wood pedestal. A sibling or two would choose to be Santa to distribute the gifts. Children who came from a distance were not concerned about Santa's deliveries on Christmas Day morning, as they knew that gifts would be waiting when they arrived back home.
The joviality of gift unwrapping aside, we bundled up in our holiday finery to attend Wigilia (High Mass). Entering the church, we immediately smelled the fragrance of incense. A large manger display awaited the placement of the porcelain Christ child, announcing His birthday at Midnight. Polish and Latin Christmas hymns and koledy (carols) were sung by parishioners, accompanied by the choir high up in the back of the church loft, in joyful tune with the resounding, melodious organ, its pipes rising to the ceiling, wafting triumphantly through the church, enfolding heart, mind, and soul. Koledy included Cicha Noc, Wielka Noc (Silent Night, Holy Night), and my favorite, a lullaby to Jesus, Lulajze Jezuniu, Lulajze, Lulaj ... Moj Piesciedelko.
Back then, Mass was celebrated in Latin as each parishioner followed the priest with their own missals (prayer/Mass book). The Gospel and the Sermon were delivered in the Polish language. Later, each parishioner approached the altar railings to receive Holy Communion. After Mass, we tromped out into the snow-laden ground, and fresh crisp, very early morning air that was cold enough to pinch your nose, and make you glad of that extra scarf around your neck, especially when walking home after the service. Later that morning, the home awakened to Christmas Dzien (Day).
I close my eyes, my memories are vivid, but, understandably with the passage of time, some fade until one day an image comes in a dream, or from the music player as I turn up the Christmas Carols, and my senses fill with the scent of pine. I easily recall giving Mama and Tata gifts of an apron, Evening In Paris, Old Spice, White Owl cigars, or Prince Albert tobacco in its red tin can - simple gifts. NEVER, EVER forgotten is the glow of family love surrounding me from my large Polska family. It wasn't the gift distribution that was dominant - it was the togetherness of family, on a special, blessed holiday, and the many days in between.
Dziekuje bardzo - thank you for reading my spin of memories, which I hope has stirred your own recollections of happy past gatherings. In whatever faith you believe, in whichever way you celebrate the holidays - my wish from my heart to yours, to my colleagues at BookLoons, to my husband Wayne, to my children and grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews (some three times removed), to my siblings, Mama and Tata (some of whom look down on us from the starry winter sky), I extend my wishes for a Wiesolych Swiat Na Bozego Narodzienie! (Happy Holidays on the Birth of Jesus Christ, or Merry Christmas). Also, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Nowego Roku (Happy New Year).Here are some books that I recommend for those who wish to explore the Polish heritage further. First, have a look at Polish Customs, Traditions, & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. This book is a rich reference to Polish traditions… for holidays and every day living. An appendix includes 'Traditional Polish Games and Pastimes for Children'. Inside, we learn that the feast day of Sw. Mikolaj (St. Nicholas) is December 6th, even though Santa Claus delivers treasure to good boys and girls on the Eve of December 24th.
Wigilia (Christmas Eve) is derived from the Latin word vigilare (to watch). The twelve days of Christmas are Gody (holy) evenings, the most important of the Polish Christmas season. St. Anne's Church in Warsaw at one time exhibited one of the oldest nativity scenes, displayed near the gates of the monastery. At one time it included a thatched roof, four columns open on three sides, with figures made of wood or wax, depicting Mary and Joseph seeking lodging, the Nativity, and the visit of the Three Kings. A famous legend tells of an impoverished nobleman and his three unmarried daughters (whose father could not provide dowries). It was said that on December 5th, St. Nicholas threw gold pieces (zloty) into the window of their home.
If that's given you a yen for more legends, enjoy The Glass Mountain: Twenty-Eight Ancient Polish Folktales and Fables by W.S. Kuniczak, Pat Bargielski. This collection of traditional Polish tales includes How the princess learned to laugh, Pan Twardowski, and The sorcerer's apprentice. Some of them are a thousand years old, and some go back to the Middle Ages. The legend of the dragon near the city of Krakow is the most well-known Polish dragon story.
Have a little one to read to? Then snuggle together and turn the pages of It's Christmas Again by Frrich Lewandowski, Michael P. Riccards, and Kathryn H. Delisle. It's a heartwarming story of how a group of children (with help from a barnfull of animals) rediscover the meaning of Christmas. When a little boy asks, 'Why do we celebrate December 25th?', no one can answer him. Everyone is busy buying gifts and decorating trees. Sadly, amidst the snow, lights, trees, and gifts, the why of the holiday is forgotten.
Another favorite of mine is Babci's Angel by Richard P. Lewandowski & Kathryn H. Delisle. This is the dramatic tale of a boy and his brother who are touched by an angel - their grandmother's angel. It is a life-embracing children's story that shows the loving presence of guardian angels, especially during life's challenging moments.
Happy reading of all the wondrous books yet to come in 2006, and the works of bygone days, treasures written over the decades. And, to those who aspire to have their first book published, very best wishes. Please keep on hugging books, and sharing the wonder of reading with family, friends, and especially with little ones.
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