MY CHILDHOOD CHRISTMAS
The last day for a noisy party was November 30, Saint Andrew’s evening called “andrzejki” with mostly female gatherings. An evening of a fortune telling, magic spells, and a little bit of witchcraft . . . But, that is another story.
December first was the beginning of an Advent, a wonderful time of waiting and preparing for the biggest, most celebrated holidays of the year, Jesus’s Birthday – Boze Narodzenie. In a country with a strong, almost a thousand-year-old Christian-Catholic tradition, every day, each event and ritual had its own significant meaning. No political system could change that, and Christmas was always openly celebrated even in a communist Poland.
On the evening of December 5, all the kids were busy polishing their shoes. Tonight, Saint Nicholas would travel around putting sweets and fruit into each clean and shiny pair of boots. December 6 is his name day, and that’s how he is celebrating it every year. I still remember a wonderful fragrance of an orange found in a small bag in my shoe. – exotic juices mixed with a warmth of the loving hands that secretly put the fruit by my bedroom door.
There was no end to cleaning every corner of the house. It had to be spotless and perfect, including windows. This madness lasted almost until Christmas Eve. Only after all the hardwood floors were waxed and polished, usually on December 23, fresh bed linens, the best table clothes and window sheers would come out. They all had that unique outdoor-fresh aroma from drying in the open attic. The house was ready.
Two weeks before Christmas, my Grandmother would bake the honey cakes. Rich with spices, best quality dark honey, and variety of nuts, they had to age to perfection for several days. Some of them were covered with chocolate, others with vanilla-lemon icing, all becoming moister and tastier with time.
Poppy seed strudel was another cake one could not imagine Christmas without. Poppy seed paste with raisins, honey, walnuts, sugar and kirsch was always prepared in a special stone bowl with the rough surface. All the kids were involved grinding the ingredients for several hours. Once the strudels were in the oven, nobody was allowed to run around the house jumping or yelling – so the dough could rise in peace, turning beautifully into golden, shiny logs.
Decorating the Christmas tree was the most expected event by all the children. It would never take place earlier than on Christmas Eve morning. Fruit, candies, honey cookies were hung first, followed by the colourful glass ornaments and hand made garlands. I still have a little bird that used to sit right next to the star on the top of a tree when I was a child. It still looks the same; however, when I was a little girl, I heard him sing. I don’t know why is he quiet now…
The quintessence of Polish Christmas celebration was always and still is “Wigilia”, Christmas Eve. When the afternoon started to sink into the darkness, everything stopped. All stores closed by four o’clock. The people and cars vanished. Everybody went home. Silent night was approaching…
The dinner table covered with the best white tablecloth was always set for one more person than a number of people attending the meal. It was a symbol of an old Polish tradition to invite in anybody, who might knock on the door that night, even a stranger (don’t try it these days!)
After breaking communion bread, “oplatek”, and exchanging hugs, kisses, and blessings “barszcz” (clear beet and vegetable broth) was served with tiny dumplings called “uszka” (ears) filled with wild mushrooms. It took me lots of practice to learn how to get that unique colour of this special soup, and in which order should be salt, sugar and vinegar added to get the right taste.
Traditional dinner was meatless. After the soup variety of fish and salads were brought from the kitchen, together with different finger foods. My favourite were always deep fried pierogies with a sauerkraut and wild mushrooms. I agree, it doesn’t sound very good for today’s healthy eating standards, but you have to remember that Advent was a fasting time. In addition, many of the dishes appeared only once a year, for the evening of Wigilia.
In the old time twelve dishes were usually served, but it is not done any more. However, poppy seeds and honey are always part of a menu as a symbol of peaceful sleep and fulfilment.
Right after supper Saint Nicholas would visit. After opening the windows, the children were asked to leave the room so he could put the gifts under the tree.
“Pasterka”, Shepherd Mass was the finale of this unique evening. At midnight, everybody including small children gathered at the local church. Our hearts full of love and forgiveness, joy and anticipation were ready to welcome Jesus to our lives. One more time…