Memories of My Polish Christmas
I never missed one
Photo by Annie Spratt On Unsplash
I always get nostalgic at this time of year. I think back to the years I drove, flew, took the train, and once, still in my teens, hitchhiked through a snowstorm to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents. Polish holiday celebrations, especially Wigilia — Christmas Eve — are a major culinary event in every Polish household, and ours was no exception.
Before the meal started, we shared opłatek, a beautifully embossed Christmas nativity scene, on a paper-thin and rectangular communion-like wafer. The Polish custom is to break off a piece of someone else’s opaltek, and then offer them a bit of one’s own, while exchanging wishes for a Merry Christmas or a healthy coming year.
Another custom was to search for the first star in the night sky, so we could sit down at the table, which my mother set with the good china and silverware she pulled out only a few times a year. Over the years, our custom of looking for the first star disappeared, and our traditions melded with Canadian ones, but the one that remained was sharing the opaltek before the Christmas Eve meal.
The Wigilia custom is to serve twelve different dishes. Ours started with homemade salted herring topped with thinly sliced red onions as we sat down at the table. And my mother would carry out bowls of the soup she had simmered on the stove for the better part of the day — her deeply crimson-red barszcz. The Wigilia tradition, was a meatless meal so she prepared cod with cream sauce and an array of side dishes. For dessert, she baked makowiec (poppyseed cake) and also her to-die-for sernik (cheesecake) and an assortment of cookies.
After dinner, we gathered around the Christmas tree and opened our presents, another concession because, in Poland, St. Nicholas brings presents to children on December 6th. When I was a child, I don’t know how we stayed awake until it was time to bundle up in our winter coats and leave for midnight Mass at the Polish church. There, we sang kolędy — Christmas carols — in the drafty pews of the underheated church.
A big change came one year when a Jewish man sat down with us to share our Christmas Eve meal. He loved it. Two years later, on December 23, he proposed to me. He didn’t think he could show up for another Wigilia without a marriage proposal. He is my husband of almost thirty-four years.
I was nervous about bringing Jonathan home and introducing him to my family. Not because he was Jewish and my parents were devoutly Catholic, but because the house was modest, my parents were immigrants, and my upbringing was so different from his own, which seemed more worldly. I was self-conscious that my father served Niagara wines, which in those days did not have the cachet they do today. He was just a little ahead of his time and considered it a patriotic duty to encourage the nascent Canadian wine industry. “How else will it improve if we don’t support them?” he asked.
My parents welcomed Jonathan, just as they had all the other friends I brought home, but there was a significant menu change for our traditional Wigilia dinner. My mother began serving creamy mushroom soup with dried mushrooms from Poland because she found out that Jonathan disliked beets and her barszcz soup. When we married, my mom was happy to add another person around her ever-expanding table for all family occasions, which by that time included another son-in-law and two grandsons.
My parents are gone. I haven’t been back to the town where I grew up for several years. My grown children sometimes reminisce about what they ate at their babcia’s house and her epic Christmas Eve meals. In my own home, I attempt to replicate my mom’s Polish recipes, but nothing I prepare quite lives up to the memories of the feasts my mother prepared. What I did learn from her, and have mastered, is the understanding that food brings people together and creates happy memories.
Tonight we’ll be having a Christmas dinner and celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah with my dear friends (the sisters of the travelling plate) and their children, now all grown with partners of their own. We’ll light the menorah, and then we will share an opłatek. I’m planning a traditional Polish Christmas menu, but I will also be serving latkes. Perhaps there will be a debate as to whether they’re best with apple sauce or sour cream. It doesn’t matter, I’ll have both.
Jonathan has taken on the task of procuring the opłatek. He found it at our local Polish deli. This year he returned three times because the owner hadn’t received her supply yet. Finally, she decided to share her own personal supply with him. I thought it was great because each time he returned with delicious sausages and jam-filled Polish doughnuts — almost like the pączki, pronounced POHNCH-kee, my mom used to make — for his nostalgic wife.
It’s Hanukkah. It’s Christmas day. We are entering a New Year in one week's time. For me, the holiday season is full of nostalgia, memories, and anticipation of what another year holds. This year my thoughts are also with the citizens of Ukraine.
Whatever this time of year means for you, please reach out to someone who might like to hear from you. I send my warmest wishes to you and yours for a joyful holiday season. May it be filled with merriment, people you cherish and my hope that you are staying warm despite the extraordinary winter weather many of us are experiencing.
And here’s another holiday story by a regular contributor Janet Torge. She has a way of getting right to the heart of any matter she is writing about. Click here to enjoy the story.
Thanks for being here for another Sunday story.