Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 17: Christmas in Translation

Christmas in Translation
By Monica Czernek Wiant

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Poland. It was the country my parents fled, the place whose oppressive regime and limited options drove them to immigrate to the United States before I was born. Poland was the wreck my family had swerved to avoid, the baseline used to discredit my teenaged dramas (“You could have been born in Poland! Then you would have NO designer jeans!”). It was like an estranged relative, both conspicuously absent and undeniably present in my family.

As with any complicated family relationship, the holidays make you pause and evaluate.

Christmas was on December 24. It was a day of celebration and feasting, but we were not allowed to eat meat except fish. My mother made a traditional meal including beet soup, fish with tomato and onion sauce, and pierogi stuffed with mushrooms or blueberries. The fish, store-bought cod, was a compromise; a real Polish family would have kept a carp in the bathtub for the occasion. Blueberry pierogi, heaped with sour cream and sprinkled with sugar, were the only Polish food that I enjoyed. Even dessert was geared toward an adult palate: poppy-seed cake or a walnut torte frosted with coffee cream and decorated with maraschino cherries. Thankfully, my mother allowed me to prepare a frozen pizza (cheese only) for my second dinner.

Our gifts came from jolly, red-suited American Santa, not the skinny Polish Mikołaj. Santa brought Atari games and LEGO sets, My Little Pony toys for me and Transformers for my brother. His timing was strange; he dropped gifts under our tree a few at a time throughout December, often while we were at school. By the time he undertook his grand Christmas Eve journey to visit all the other kids in America, we had unwrapped our gifts and played several rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

When I was a child, I wholeheartedly embraced my family’s unique mix of Polish and American traditions. As adolescence set in, I noticed the differences and equated different with wrong.

“We have the wrong ornaments,” I told my parents one year, and my father indulged me with a trip to the store and a tree adorned with blue glass balls and silver tinsel.

“We have the wrong music,” I told my mother, buying her a Mannheim Steamroller CD recommended by my orchestra teacher.

I played translator, introducing my parents to American Christmas.

In 2001, we barely celebrated at all. My father died on Dec. 21, after a short, fierce battle with cancer that seemed cruelly juxtaposed against the merriment of the season. A giant wreath hung on the door of his hospital room. Friends brought trays of holiday cookies and fudge, the American sweets I had always wished my mother would make. My aunt, who traveled from Poland to grieve with us, made the pierogi that year because my mother couldn’t, and I didn’t know how.

Maybe it was the loss of my father, or maybe I simply grew up. I realized that my Polish heritage wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I researched the holiday traditions, learning why Poles didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve (to honor the farm animals who watched over baby Jesus) and that one should always set an extra place at the table for an unexpected guest. I learned the religious and cultural significance of opłatek, the papery wafer my family would break and share along with blessings to one another. The whole coming year might hinge on those blessings; they’re worth more than any gift under the tree. I forgave my parents for getting some details wrong with Christmas celebrations, and I saw the love behind the frozen pizzas and Mannheim Steamroller and all their attempts to meld two cultures’ traditions into a holiday their children would love.

There’s no such thing as a perfect holiday, and sometimes it isn’t until years later that you realize the things your family did wrong were actually the ones that were exactly right, and those are the things worth carrying forward for generations to come.

I now have 2 children of my own. I’m married to an American whose family makes almond roca, sings English Christmas carols, and hangs stockings by the chimney for Santa to fill on Christmas Eve. We open gifts on Christmas morning. Poland is more distant for my children, a country they might do a report on for school, the place that gives one of their grandmothers her distinctive accent.

I’m still trying to carve out the right space for Poland in my family’s life. There are no carp in our bathtub, but I bought some opłatek at the Eastern European deli in Minneapolis. I’ve learned my mother’s recipes for pierogi and walnut cake, and this year I will be making them for her and asking for honest feedback. There are some things I’ll get wrong at Christmas, but the pierogi will be perfect.

What holiday traditions did your family celebrate differently from others in your community? Did you perceive different as wrong, or were you proud of your differences? Has your attitude toward your childhood holiday memories evolved as you’ve grown up?

One randomly selected winner will receive a Polish-American Wigilia kit containing opłatek (holy bread), an ornament, and a package of Polish cookies.

 

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37 thoughts on “Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 17: Christmas in Translation

  1. Anastasia Vitsky says:

    Love your post, Monica. I love the idea of a country as an estranged relative. It reminds me of so many stories of second generation immigrants and the standards/expectations they have to live up to.

    I also am thoroughly curious what it’s like to have a fish in your bathtub. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kyra says:

    That was such a beautiful story. It made me smile and cry .
    My family is a mixture different cultures. My mom was born in the Bahamas so food wisw and tradition wise it was amazing.
    We celebrated traditional Christmases but with a twist.
    The meal consisted of the Ham and Turkey…but also conch salad and conch and rice and lobster stuffing and for dessert we had the traditional fruit cake and pumpkin pie but also the awesome guava duff. That’s just one of her traditions …there was also the junkanoo festival..
    Those are just a few..
    My mom isn’t here any more…she passed two years ago…..and Christmas is not just the same ….but i cherish those memories so much

    Have a lovely day 🙂

    Kyratinker36 @gmail.com.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Also, I’m sorry about your mother. Holidays without your parents are never easy. We always miss them, but we especially miss them on the days we know exactly where they would have sat, what they would have wanted to eat, and how much they would have loved the celebration. After 14 years, I still miss my dad most at Christmas. Hugs to you.

      Like

  3. Loralynne Summers says:

    Oh, I love this. 🙂

    My Babci and Dzadzi were both immigrants as children with their families. I remember that wonderully tasteless oplatek fondly, even though as a child I tried to take the tiniest piece possible so I wouldn’t have so much left to eat after making the rounds of the table. 🙂

    I don’t remember much about what we had for dinner, but every year Babci (and now my mom) made babka and we toast it for breakfast along with sliced deli ham thay we fry with some butter in the pan and then make sandwiches with for breakfast on Christmas (and Easter).

    Since my grandparents had both been raised in America from early childhood, we celebrated a very American Christmas. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I discovered that most people had no clue what oplatek was. I’d always assumed it to be part of a normal holiday celebration, something done before saying Grace at dinner.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Loralynne Summers says:

        Oh that’s a closely guarded secret, lol! Although some day soon I’m going to have to learn it. My mom (who sadly won’t let me have my son call Babci, she prefers Gramma) is in her mid-60’s and my dad (alas, he’s Pop-pop) is in his 70’s and I don’t imagine they’ll be able to mix the dough much longer.

        Like

  4. JoanneBest says:

    Thank you for such a beautiful post Monica, your descriptions of your Family traditions filled my head with images and brought me back to my grammar school days when I went to a Polish Catholic School for 8 years.

    First, I’m so sorry you lost your Father to cancer ((hugs)), it’s a devastating loss at any time of the year but especially worse at a time when the world is celebrating the birth of a Child as you mourn the loss of a Father ((bigger hugs)). I’m beginning to learn that hard lesson, regardless of how much time has passed, we never get over the loss of our Parents, we adjust, but we don’t forget ❤

    Now back to Poland 🙂 It wasn't until I read your words that some of my past memories clicked and made more sense to me.
    When we moved from Newark NJ to the suburbs my Dad went to enroll us in Catholic school, there were 2 schools, one predominantly full of Irish kids and the other Polish, in fact at that time, you *had* to be Polish to go to Sacred Heart School. My Dad, unfamiliar with the area, stopped at the first school he saw and went in to enroll us. When he walked in the Priest said "you look like a nice Polish man" as they shook hands. My Dad, for whatever reason, went with it and that's how this Irish girl wound up in a school overflowing with Polish kids 😀
    But it wasn't just the children of course, I soon found myself with a Prayer card in front of me, reciting our morning Prayers in Polish and greeting the Priest with "Chwała niech będzie imię Jezusa Chrystusa" aka "Praise be the name of Jesus Christ" 🙂

    I remember going to a friend's house and politely eating an unknown fish covered with tomato sauce and onions. We were taught to eat whatever was put on our plates and be grateful we had food to eat (because, starving children in Africa, which made my little-girl brain wonder how they'd get the food to them before it got cold).
    At another friend's house, we'd sit on the floor eating poppy seed cake while the adults chatted in Polish.
    Pierogi, was popular in our house and still is to this day, but we buy the store-made kind, my Mom used to make them by hand and they were so good! I've never tried blueberry but I'm anxious to try it now, thank you 🙂

    I'm so happy you are beginning to embrace your Polish, it's wonderful that you're making pierogi and walnut cake for your Mom. I imagine as your children grow, they may be assigned a report on Poland only to find a goldmine in their very own Grandmother, leading them to dig deeper as they discover their Polish roots and make their own traditions with their own families one day.

    While I never felt our Family Christmas traditions were much different than our neighbors, I do know that the older I got, the more I became my Mother, decorating the same way and cooking the same things she did.
    Thinking on your questions, I realized that once I left home and married, I began to embrace my Irish side more than ever, when as a child, I never really thought much about my roots. My great-Grandparents came over from Ireland on my Mom's side, and on Dad's side, well, his Mom died when he was 2 years old and his Father was nothing more than a name on a birth certificate, a secret nobody talked about, as much as my Mom and I tried to find out, the most we got was "I'll tell you one day" from my Dad's Aunts but they never opened their mouths and the secret went to their graves. We suspect there was some Russian in there somewhere, rumors of England, whispered talk of someone going to Italy and coming back with a baby girl (my Dad's sister), but we never found out the truth.
    It breaks my heart to not know my Dad's roots, but there is no-one left alive to tell us anything except a cousin we don't know anything about except that his son, now in his 50's, doesn't know that he was adopted at birth.

    Thank you again for your post, it stirred up a lot in me, and reinforced my belief in the importance of Family Traditions, as well as the importance of honesty in my own Family tree. I crave finding the roots to my Dad's Family tree (perhaps they are in Poland 🙂 ) but can do nothing about it anymore, as hard as I tried, I have to accept that and just hang on tighter to my Irish.
    Hugs xox ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laura says:

      Joanne – the comment “there are starving children in Africa” was something that was said around our dinner table too. One day my brother got us together, we made a plan the next time our Mom said it the 5 of us got up from the table collected the box we had hidden in the closet with air mail stamps and placed them next to my Mom with the response “you think if we mail it tomorrow the food will still be fresh”? She laughed till she cried and never said it again.

      Like

    • catrouble says:

      LOL Joanne…My mom tried that ‘starving kids in Africa’ line on me when I was about 4 years old…I handed her my plate and asked her to send it to them. She never tried that line on me again. 😉 Hugs and blessings…Cat

      Liked by 1 person

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Joanne,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and love hearing the nostalgia it triggered. My parents (perhaps intentionally) settled in a Midwestern town where there were very few Polish people, so I never had a sense of community with other Poles. My house was the weird one where the food was like nobody else’s. A school full of Polish-American kids! I can’t imagine.

      That’s a real shame that you won’t be able to find out your dad’s history. Hang on to Ireland, and write down what you know and what’s important, because you won’t always remember it or have access to the people who do. One of my projects for the coming year is to interview my mom and write down as many of her Poland stories as she’ll allow me to.

      Like

  5. kaisquared4 says:

    Oh my goodness, Monica, thank you for your post. My dad’s side of the family is Sicilian, but I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago that was 99.8% Polish. There was a Polish daily newspaper in the community, All local businesses had signs that said “mówimy po polsku” if they wanted to thrive.Growing up as a Sicilian Lutheran in that community had me feeling that the Polish way of celebrating Advent and Christmas (until Candlemas in February) was the correct way and that I was missing something at home because we didn’t have a fish in the bathtub and my mom didn’t make pierogi and we got no special treats or gifts on Dzien Swietego Mikolaja. As a child I was lucky enough to get invited to my friends houses and was amazed at the cookies and crafts being prepared there during Advent. I always thought that sharing oplatek with our extended family could have resolved a few problems 🙂

    As I grew older and learned that some of my first-generation Polish friends envied me for my more American Christmas, I realized that there was no one “correct” way to celebrate the season. As a teen, I worked alongside women from Poland who were in the US on work visas who helped correct my Polish as I helped teach them American English(their language books were from England) and brought and shared many yummy pierogis. When I moved away from Chicago as an adult, I missed the community and even the bells ringing at near dawn for roraty during Advent.

    Strangely enough, I again live in a community in Wisconsin that has a large German, Polish and Slavic population, so my daughter has grown up expecting treats from “St. Nick” on December 6th. We also have a large portion of our town with Mexican roots, so part of her Christmas time also includes Las Posadas, from 12/16-12/24, the nine days celebrating the nine months Mary carried Jesus, and symbolizing the search for sanctuary. Her view of a “normal” Christmas includes these traditions and more.

    Like

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Oplatek is a great problem solver. The act of looking someone in the eye and thinking of a personal blessing to offer was so awkward when I was a kid, but now feels like a powerful and essential way to be human with one another.

      I love your multi-cultural holiday mashup. My church introduced a Las Posadas tradition a couple years ago; each night during Advent, Mary and Joseph go home with a different family who post their adventures on Facebook. So many of these traditions share a common theme of reminding us that we all belong to one another, that we’re all waiting in the cold and dark together, and we can warm and brighten the way together.

      Like

  6. Joelle Casteel says:

    Traditions were rarely about where my grandparents came from- beyond some minor things like “Silent Night” sometimes sung in German, although never by my grandmother who sometimes seemed embarrassed to have come from Germany. My mother attempted the most “American magazine perfect” type Christmas celebrations she could. I’m not sure what mine might look like, now that I’m estranged from my parents and trying to make new traditions for my family. As my teen and I are Unitarian Universalists atheists and my dominant is an atheist, I’m not sure what it means for us. As I said to a friend on Facebook, it feels to mark Chalica (an invented UU holiday that’s already passed.) I’ve been thinking on Christmas day again, given that my daughter chose staying home with her computer, the smartphone she and I share, and reliable internet to stay in contact with her girlfriend who’s having a hard time.

    Hm. now I want to make pierogies, although I have no “handed down through the generations” recipe to work from. I did make homemade raviolis the other day 😀

    Like

    • Monica Wiant says:

      It seems like there might be an opportunity for the liberating act of creating new holiday traditions from the new space you find yourself in this year. Blessings to you, in whatever shape feels right.

      Like

  7. Irishey says:

    Thank you, Monica, for sharing these memories and your evolving perspectives as you matured. I truly enjoyed this! I am positive your mother will love the traditional dishes you prepare this year.

    To my knowledge, I do not have Polish ancestors, although I have German in my heritage on my father’s side. We often ate quasi-Americanized German foods.

    Interestingly enough, it was my mother’s side of the family who put fish in the bathtub, and sink and wash tubs! I don’t recall that being a “thing” during Christmastime. They also used tomatoes and onions quite often as a sauce for meats, fish and veggies, or as side dishes doctored up with other things.

    What holiday traditions did your family celebrate differently from others in your community?

    I don’t think we did much that was “different.” Our county community had a widely diversified religious makeup, although the majority were Catholic, then Protestant denominations. Our rural area was mostly Catholic, so most of my schoolmates attended weekly catechism, etc.

    I was fortunate enough to be invited to midnight mass a few times when I was in high school, and wished my family was Catholic as I enjoyed the many celebrations and gatherings.

    Still, all in all, our community and my family celebrated Christmas in largely “American” manner, with differences being the church services and individual family traditions of when people opened gifts or ate their family dinner. All of those differences seemed “normal” – no big deal.

    Did you perceive different as wrong, or were you proud of your differences?

    I’ve always, always, always wanted to incorporate various traditions into our holidays. I thought it would be fun, educational and special to celebrate Christmas as they do in other countries, regions of the USA, religions, historical eras, etc. Have their traditional foods, decorations, hymns/songs, rituals, etc. How cool.

    I am glad we celebrate with family, and proud that my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle all made Christmas nice, warm, loving, fun, hectic and managed any stress fairly well.

    Has your attitude toward your childhood holiday memories evolved as you’ve grown up?

    Not really. I would love to return to the Christmases I enjoyed as a child, with all the cousins and visiting grands, aunts, uncles, etc. The mega baking and candy-making, holiday shopping and making family gifts and the drawn secret Santa gift while on a small budget. The lights and decorations. The Christmas music playing everywhere. The mystery and anticipation of Santa on Christmas Eve. My grandma reading the story of Jesus’ birth from the Holy Bible. So many other fun things.

    There are too many of us now for all my cousins to get together in one place with all their children and grandchildren. I miss that, and them. It is difficult for my siblings and I to get together at the same time with our parents, children and grands.

    I think I have regressed in my wishes more than evolved in my opinions and thoughts about Christmas tradition and celebrations! 🙂

    Like

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Your big family Christmases with all the relatives sound wonderful. I also love the idea of incorporating different regional and international traditions into your celebration. It’s like Christmas with your arms reached out.

      Like

  8. awesomesub says:

    Hi Monica, I like that you have found a nice way back to your family’s heritage, and that you include a little of it when celebrating Christmas. For me, including parts from two different traditions sounds pretty special. The two traditions that we have in our family are not too far apart, I think the most visible difference is that we open our presents on Christmas eve, whereas hubby’s family waits till Christmas day. Oh, the carp in the bathtub sounds familiar, my parents had that too, when I was a kid. I never ate any of that carp though. 🙂

    Like

  9. SH says:

    Thanks, Monica for a great post! My husband’s family immigrated from Poland at least 4 or 5 generations ago and his last name was shortened through the process. His maternal grandmother passed away almost 30 years ago, about two years after we started dating, and I never got to ask her for any recipes. I have never heard of the fish in the bathtub tradition!

    Like

  10. Sassytwatter says:

    Lovely post. Going to have to ask my polish friends who just moved here about the bathtub fish.

    We meld Swedish Christmas traditions with American. We open one present Xmas eve instead of all of them and do the American tradition Xmas morning. All the fools from the meatballs hearing is Swedish it’s fun to mix and match and come up with what works best.

    Like

  11. Laura says:

    This was a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing some of your traditions and memories of Christmas’ past. We didn’t really celebrate any differently from the rest of our community with the exception of opening gifts on Christmas morning and our stuffing is made with sausage instead of bread. My Mom started a tradition with my sister and I when we were little where we chose a Saturday in December and we went baking crazy with Xmas music playing in the background as we sang off key. We haven’t missed a year yet.

    Like

  12. catrouble says:

    Hey Monica…I’m so sorry for the loss of your father. I lost mine over 20 years ago and still feel his loss more during the holidays. I actually feel his loss more during Halloween and Thanksgiving as those were his favorites. Christmas is my mom’s favorite and thank the good Lord I don’t have to celebrate without her.

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful traditions…I grew up in a mostly Catholic and Protestant neighborhood but did have one Polish family down the street who kept fish in one of their bathtubs during the cold weather. All of us who were friends with their children were so excited in the fall…they would allow us to help carry the fish in out of the backyard pond and take them back out in the spring. Their mom did make awesome pierogi but they weren’t blueberry. 😦

    Our traditions were just what we did…now I find out that many of them were due to my German (grandmother) and Scots/Irish (grandfather) roots on my mom’s side. Those two were a hoot together. 😉

    Hugs and blessings…Cat

    Like

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Thanks, Cat. I don’t think we’ll ever stop missing our parents during the holidays, but I guess it would be even more sad if we did stop.

      Now that I talk to others, I think my family might have been the only ones making blueberry pierogi. This year, I’m taking pictures and Pinteresting the heck out of it… This needs to become a thing. They’re so good.

      Like

  13. pieclown says:

    Hi,

    I am so glad I read you post after eating. It mad me hungry. My family has been here for some time. One line goes back to the Mayflower, but that is not important. I think the closes would be 5 generation ago. It was French, but I would say I do not any traditions that I can say from from the old world. The closes would be an oyster salad that my mom’s dad would make. the true recipe was lost with his passing.

    We I need to got to sleep and try to feel better.
    pie pie 4 now

    Like

  14. renee200 says:

    I always wanted to have traditions that were different and cool. I’m sure my family immigrated here at some point but no one could be bothered to keep up with our history. I was the kid going “why can’t we do something different.” We put up the tree on Christmas Eve, had turkey and watched the game… boring. Most of my friends had all kinds of traditions. I was even willing to try Hanukkah until I realized there was a religious aspect to it. I mean really they had 8 days of presents, candles they were allowed to light in their homes, and great food. It’s funny how we often want the opposite of what we have. I really enjoyed your story. Thank you for sharing some of your great traditions. Blessings, R

    Like

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Hi Renee,
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Our Jewish friends invited us to a Hanukkah dinner a few years ago, and it was just lovely. They’re from Wisconsin, so dinner included fried cheese curds as well as latkes. Might as well use up all the oil, right?

      Like

  15. rozharrison says:

    Hi Monica, I enjoyed reading this and learning a little about the Polish traditions and how your family have blended these with American traditions.

    We moved to New Zealand from England when I was very young. Not being used to Christmas during summer my parents hosted a mid winter Christmas for friends and neighbours. It was always lots of fun with the full Christmas dinner, tree, small gifts and Santa always made an appearance. Our Kiwi guests loved it. That was back before mid winter Christmas was common.

    Hugs
    Roz

    Like

    • Monica Wiant says:

      Hi Roz,
      Thanks for reading! I imagine that the flipping of seasons would take some getting used to, and Christmas in summer does seem strange. What a clever way to carry on some traditions from the northern hemisphere.

      Like

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