Christmas morning didn’t hold for me as much fascination as did Christmas Eve. That is still true for me today. Maybe it is the anticipation of Christmas Day or the magic of night time with stars twinkling in a crisp, clear sky that makes Christmas Eve so very special. Or maybe it was simply the fact that our family exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve.
December 24th was the day our family prepared a special Christmas Eve dinner. While mom baked the traditional foods that our Polish family would enjoy that evening, I was charged with helping to measure the ingredients, washing the bowls and dishes used in food preparation, and checking the covered pots and pans as they simmered atop our Kelvinator stove.
In the late afternoon I accompanied my dad as we ventured forth to find the perfect Christmas tree. With my dad at the wheel of our black 1949 Dodge automobile, we would make our way across the Commodore Hull Bridge into Derby where dad would find a tree lot. He would park the car and together we would approach the vendor, more often than not someone who my dad had at least a passing acquaintance with. Everything seemed magical to me: the large banner proclaiming “Christmas Trees” in big red letters, the strings of naked light bulbs crisscrossing the air above the trees, the wonderful woodsy smell of the pine trees, the cold air nipping at my nose and fingers, and if we were really lucky the soft fall of snowflakes through the oncoming twilight.
Dad and I would wander through the paved forest in search of the perfect tree: not too tall, not too stout, lots of branches for hanging ornaments, not too thick of a trunk, and finally a tree that would fit atop our car. Once we located the perfect tree I was left to ‘guard’ it while dad went in search of the vendor. A bit of haggling over price would then ensue. With some help from the vendor my dad would get the tree tied down atop our car and we made our way home slowly but surely. Eventually dad would get the tree up to our porch where he proceeded to cut away an inch or two of the trunk before setting it up in the tree holder and tightening the screws to keep it in place. Then it was my turn to fill the reservoir of the holder with water for the tree.
Once the tree was in place dad would get the lights on it but often needed some assistance. I got to help decorate the tree with blown glass ornaments and bubble lights. My specialty, however, was adorning the decorated branches with tinsel. Even as a child I liked a sense of symmetry so I would carefully place the tinsel at the end of each tree branch so that the finished effect simulated real icicles on a tree in the forest.
Just before we ate dinner mom would bring out the traditional wafer (opwatki) and we would make our new year wishes for each other as we broke off pieces. My favorite dishes always included pierogi and borscht and they remain among my favorites to this day. Homemade sweet breads were another tradition in our house and mom always made babka (a sweet raisin bread) and a wonderful cheese bread.
My mother always believed in following the Christmas story as told in the Bible. If bringing gifts in the evening was good enough for the shepherds and the wise men then it was just fine with her. So after our traditional Christmas Eve dinner (wigilia in Polish), we would finish decorating our tree and bring out our gifts for one another.
In order to heighten the anticipation of the gift, mom always insisted in gently removing the paper that the gift was wrapped in. So I would smooth out any creases in the paper and set it aside. Mom would then take all the used paper and store it away for use another year (I believe that this was something she learned during the Great Depression but it also makes good sense environmentally). Once the process of unwrapping was finished I could then give my attention to my presents.
There were two toys that I received as a youngster that I remember fondly even to this day. When I was eight years old my parents bought for me a beautiful bride doll. This wasn’t your ordinary, take everywhere doll; this doll stood as tall as I did. She had a beautiful white dress and a long veil made from white netting. I’ll bet if I searched long enough through the boxes of photos from my childhood I would find a picture of myself with that doll. I simply adored her.
The other toy that I remember so vividly was received at Christmas the previous year when I was seven years old. It was a toy piano. Not much to look it. It was made from a very heavy pink plastic material and only contained about one and a half octaves of keys but I cherished it dearly. That toy piano was to later become a key item in my young life but that story shall have to wait for another column.
Of course I had a Christmas stocking but I knew at a very early age that Santa Claus was really represented by my parents. They explained that since Santa couldn’t make it to every house on Christmas Eve he enlisted the assistance of parents across the world to fill Christmas stockings. Throughout the evening WADS radio station would be playing Christmas songs and it was to the sound of these that I would finally make my way upstairs and fall asleep in anticipation of Christmas morning.
Mom and Dad instilled in me the solemnity of Christmas Day and how it was a truly religious holiday. Each year we would attend Mass at St. Michael’s Church and I would join my voice in song with the other parishioners. How I loved to sing the carols (kolendy), both in Polish and English. I never failed to marvel at the retelling of the Christmas story.
After Mass we would return home and welcome family members or on alternating years be welcomed into the homes of my Auntie Ann or my Aunt Martha. It was a lovely way to mark a special holiday and I can still remember the smiles and laughter of the adults and children alike.