Memories of a Polish Christmas
by Josephine Kaszuba Locke
Christmas Eve is approaching. I feel a quickening of my pulse, and revisit in memory the holidays of my childhood, where 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 Czesław, there are five sisters and five 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.
The sharing of opłatek 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 opłatek is unblessed. Wafers were traditionally made with the flour and water dough poured on one side of a rectangular iron. The other half is closed over, and the iron is held over a fire until the wafer is baked. In my hometown, the opłatek was made by the parish’s Felician Sisters. The white, rectangular shapes were embossed with Holy Christmas scenes. At the vigil meal (wigilia), each family member would approach the others to break off a piece of wafer, and wish each other “wesołych świąt,” Polish for “Merry Christmas!”
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’ — Mary, Julia, Theresa, and Helen — too, in preparation to attend Midnight Mass later that evening.
A large assortment of traditional food always included fish (generally cod in our home), potatoes, a compote made of dried fruits in a sauce, and home baked and Christmas breads from the Rozmus Bakery, the Polish bakery a short walking distance away. For days before Christmas, the aromatic odors of baking dough delighted the neighborhood. The meal also included a delicacy of cooked yellow peas, dry yet moist, and raisins, nuts, and a sauce rolled in a pastry.
After dining, we gathered around the 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 the Vigil (High) Mass, also known as Wigilia. The word is derived from the Latin word vigilare (to watch).
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 kolędy (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. We sang “Cicha Noc,” (“Silent Night”), and my favorite kolęda, a lullaby to Jesus, “Lulajze Jezuniu.”
When I was growing up, the Mass was celebrated in Latin as each parishioner followed the priest with their own missals. 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 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. Sometimes the memories come from hearing a specific Christmas Carol or smelling the scent of fresh pine. I easily recall giving my parents simple gifts: An apron and perfume (“Evening in Paris”) for mama; Old Spice cologne, White Owl cigars, or Prince Albert tobacco (in its red tin can) for tata. For our family, gift distribution did not dominate Christmas. Instead, the holiday was always about the togetherness of family, on a special, blessed holiday, and the many days in between.
There are many fine books 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 everyday living. An appendix includes “Traditional Polish Games and Pastimes for Children.” Inside, we learn the feast day of Św. Mikołaj (St. Nicholas) is December 6, even though Santa Claus delivers treasure to good boys and girls on the Eve of December 24th.
Since the time I wrote this piece over 10 years ago, some of my book recommendations have gone out of print. You may find some of them, however, on eBay or from on-line used book sellers. These include:
The Glass Mountain: Twenty-Eight Ancient Polish Folktales and Fables by W.S. Kuniczak, Pat Bargielski. This collection of traditional Polish tales, ideal for story-telling during holiday gatherings.
If you have little ones in the family, look for It’s Christmas Again by Frrich (the pen name of Fr. Richard) Lewandowski, Michael P. Riccards, and Kathryn H. Delisle. It’s a heartwarming story of how a group of children (with help from barnyard animals) rediscover the meaning of Christmas.
Another favorite of mine is Babci’s Angel by Richard P. Lewandowski and Kathryn H. Delisle. This is the dramatic tale of a boy and his brother who are touched by 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.
© 2016 POLISH AMERICAN JOURNAL
P.O. BOX 271, NORTH BOSTON, NY 14110-0271
(716) 312-8088 | Toll Free (800) 422-1275