Christmas

Christmas Memories

Now that yet another Christmas celebration has come and gone, which Christmas memory is your favorite? From all of them, is it a childhood memory or one more recent?

These questions got me thinking. Actually my memories have become a blur especially when remembering the ones when my kids were little. They seem to all blend together. Thank goodness for photographs which validate my memory of some of the events, such as the strolling minstrel – one year my one daughter receiving a guitar from Santa.xmas KC2

When I think of when I was growing up, I do remember Christmas Eve dinners, which is when my family celebrated Christmas. That dinner was steeped in Polish tradition. Christmas Eve is called Wigilia in Polish and my mother even helped us celebrate it when she was at the Lutheran Home in Arlington Heights. Her first year there was memorable when we brought her to the house for lunch and some pierogi, our little Wigilia. mama LHThe idea of having her with us for dinner in the evening was going to be too much for her and certainly for me, having to care for her. Therefore lunch was perfect. The first year was good and very celebratory; the second year was difficult. She was so weak and fragile, and the time at my house had to be a burden on her. She really did not know where she was.

I remember some of the Christmases growing up, when my brother and I were very small. We always wrote our letter for personal wants, to the Christmas Angel, not to Santa. The Christmas Angel would come via the window which my parents would crack open in the living room. During the evening before our dinner began, we would go for a drive around town to see all the Christmas lights. Before we all got on the road, my mom would excuse herself because she had to check to make sure she turned the oven off before leaving. This is when she would place the presents under the tree, as if the angel stopped by. She did confess to doing this many years later. Then of course my brother and I were absolutely wide-eyed with wonder when we got home to see all the presents under the tree.

xmas 1054

I don’t remember having a conflict with any other children about Santa versus the Angel. I guess it may have been that I just played along since I did not want to be different, but yet the Angel was what we believed in. We also did believe in Swienty Mikołaj, or Saint Nicholas, who some call Santa Claus, but he came on December 6th every year. If you leave your shoes out in front of your bed, Swienty Mikołaj would bring you a toy. It’s just that for us he did not come on Christmas Eve. It may seem that all these Polish traditions are rather confusing. You need to understand that the Polish traditions come from a strong Catholic belief system which is why things are done that way.

I do remember with my own kids trying to remember December 6, and falling very short of the mark some years. It’s because you need to remember on December 5th at bedtime to put the shoes out, and then remember to have candy canes or a toy handy to put in the shoes. Many years it was a struggle to keep that tradition alive. But I did keep the Polish Wigilia alive and we still do it today, even with my kid’s spouses participating. It’s all about the food. My one daughter and I go to the Polish grocer to get the fresh fish and marinated herring. My cousin from Poland sends me dried mushrooms for the barszcz, a beet soup. And it would not be Christmas Eve of we did not make pierogi from scratch.

I suppose my favorite Christmas is a compilation of all my Christmases as happy celebrations with family. These memories are a blend of one memory after another, no matter where we lived at the time or who else entered our life. This may be why they are all a blur, because every Christmas is about family and they are all celebrations.

Survival

After the mock trial, they were convinced that they would be sent far into Russia and soon.  There were no more interrogations, so they could settle into some kind of survival routine for the time being.  Their living situation was barely humane, with thirty girls in one cell, approximately 15 x 15.  Right now my imagination is going wild when I think of thirty people in a room that size, which would be standing room only!  My mother recounts that there were two or three beds in the cell, so how did they sleep?  There was not too much in fighting as to who would take the beds each night since they were no mattresses on them and they were a breading ground for bedbugs, which they took pleasure in burning to a crisp.  Many slept on the floor with their backpacks as pillows and their coats as blankets.  At least most of these girls were from their underground organization so they were in this situation together.

As each day blended into the next, they needed to fill the endless hours with some kind of amusement.  So they created some sporting events and contests.  Since there were fleas in the cell keeping them company, one of the contests was, who could catch and kill the most fleas, and the winner would get a cube of sugar.  One of the vivid memories I have of my mom is one of her hating, absolutely abhorring fish.  After learning why, it all made sense.  The food served was not exactly five star.  In the morning they would get hot water, called kiepiatok and a slice of bread.  At noon, it was a cup of mush and kiepiatok.  Dinner was worth waiting for because it was fish soup with floating fish bones and fins as well as floating eyes looking back at you.  As long as I knew my mom, a whole fish with head and eyes made her skin crawl.   You may have refused to eat this food at first, she recalled, but after a while you realized you would otherwise starve.  The soup served more than one purpose as it turned out.  To thicken the soup ‘the chef’ would add wheat to it with the outer husk attached which was impossible to swallow.  To further their need for amusement, they turned dinner into a sporting event to see who could spit the husks from the soup the farthest.

It was the fall of 1940 and my mother was still in the Stanislawow prison, on Polish soil.  They new Christmas was coming and they promised each other that they would celebrate with some style.  As they would take daily walks, they would pick up little twigs with the thought of constructing a tiny Christmas tree.  Since the mock trial in September, they were allowed to receive food packages from home along with some warm clothing.  Each of them saved some of their goodies for Christmas Eve supper called Wigilia in Polish and so the preparation began.  From all the twigs and some thread from green blankets, they shaped “the prettiest little Christmas tree you ever saw”, my mother recounted.  Towels were used as a table cloth, and the table of course was the floor.  One of them always stood guard in front of the peephole in the door, so the guards would not see their preparation, and if they heard the key turn with a guard about to enter the room, they threw a blanket over their supper table.

Once evening arrived on Christmas Eve, they were ready for their feast of saved goodies.  Even though a bit stale it tasted divine, mom remembered.  And of course they had to sing Christmas carols.  After all what would Christmas be without carols to set the mood.  In their joy, they forgot to station a person in front of the door and they were caught!  The guard came in, and sent everyone whose lips were moving to solitary confinement.