Christmas Eve in Rural Pennsylvania during the 1950s
As a little girl, growing up in central Pennsylvania, I remember the excitement only a kid can feel on Christmas Eve. Not just because I expected gifts on Christmas morning, but because for our family, as Polish-Americans, it was an exceedingly special day.
When my sister Irene and I heard the clanking of the coal furnace early in the morning, we knew Mom was downstairs in the kitchen kneading the dough for poppy seed and nut rolls. She put Dad to work grinding poppy seed. We knew for sure it was Christmas Even when we heard the low rumble of complaining about how hard it was to grind the near unbreakable, tiny black seeds that she brought home from the grocery store, in a two pound brown paper bag tied with white string. Somehow, I can’t imagine the day being the same if he weren’t grumbling. He never seemed to get the mixture fine enough and she insisted he run it through the old-fashioned meat grinder at least three times. Anyone who has turned the crank on one of those contraptions would understand why he complained.
Later in the morning, we trooped behind Dad through knee-deep snow onto the “reclaimed” strip mine near our house. With our breath steaming the air, Irene and I kept the axe and saw from disappearing into the show while he chopped down an evergreen. Only one kind of tree grew there, white pine. The trees sport soft needles, and the limbs are far apart and somewhat sparse, but a heady fragrance they give off is so much better than any store bought evergreen. I remember enjoying the Christmassy scent while brushing clusters of needles across my cold face. Our house in the distance, the arctic-like snow filled air, what more could we ask as we held onto branches and helped our dad drag the tree home.
Once inside, muttering about straight and crooked trees, he set the tree up in the rusty red three legged stand, brought down the decorations, and strung the lights. We, along with our older sister Virginia, were drafted into cleaning the entire house. And we did clean every nook and cranny—even putting up fresh curtains in each room. There is an old Polish maxim that says if home is not sparkling at Christmas it will be untidy during the coming year. Our house glowed. And the old adage always proved accurate the following year. Mom took breaks from the kitchen and worked alongside us while the heady scent of baking Christmas goodies filled the house.
No Christmas Eve dinner, Wigilia as it is called in Polish, is possible without pierogi. House cleaned, nut and poppy seed rolls baked, it was time to make our favorite comfort food. Mom prepared the ingredients, and we girls sat around the kitchen table stuffing the little dumplings and pinching them together. They took only minutes to cook, and Mom stirred them into hot butter and delicately browned onions. Oh, the aromas!
When the house was gleaming, daylight was rapidly fading into wintery darkness. Virginia and Mom set the Wigilia table, and Irene and I decorated the tree. Dad reached the high branches but mostly sat on the couch and supervised. When the last candy cane was hung, he reminded us that we had to watch for the first star to appear in the eastern sky; otherwise, we could not start the Wigilia supper to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We knelt on the chair in front of the window and watched. When we saw it, he came to make sure it was there, and pronounced it time. Time to enter the candle lit kitchen and approach the beautifully set table. There was always one extra place set just in case a stranger should stop by and be in need of hospitality. We Polish-Americans are welcoming people, and say: A guest in the home is God in the home.
The array set before us still glows in my mind after all these years. The white and pink Oplateki was arranged on a glass plate in the center of the table covered with a white tablecloth. There was mushroom soup, thick and velvety, laced with the mushrooms my mom had dried after we helped pick them in the fall. A pierogi filled platter drizzled with onions browned in butter, bowls of peas, beets, kapusta, sauerkraut, a small plate of garlic sprinkled with salt, and fruit compote. Christmas Eve is a fast day and no meat is eaten. A tray of goodies, including cookies as well as the rolls baked earlier in the day, sat nearby.
To begin the meal it was necessary to share the Oplateki. The symbolic bread is a flat rectangular communion-like wafer, about four by six inches, imprinted with scenes from the biblical Christmas story. Dad stood and said a prayer, he broke off a piece and held it while reaching across the table to each of us, and we in turn broke off a small piece. He wished us a happy and prosperous life filled with goodness, luck, and joy for the coming year. Mom did the same, followed by each of us children. The candles gave off an ethereal light, and the tree glowed in the other room. Wigilia is the most special and solemn meal of the year. We passed each dish and enjoyed every bite after the long and eventful day.
Full and tired, we were glad of the old custom that said clearing the table of the still laden bowls and platters could wait till morning. This was in case the spirits of our ancestors should want to stop by and share the feast. I don’t know where that practice originated, but it was part of our tradition. My sisters and I still mention it whenever we talk of Christmases from long ago.
Dad loved to sing, and one of the few times each year we heard him was when he sang the koledy, Polish Carols, after dinner. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful Polish Christmas songs.
We didn’t open gifts on Christmas Eve as many Polish families do. We waited for Santa Claus. Irene and I crawled under the covers warm, snug, and excited looking forward to Christmas morning.
Wesolych Swiat b ozego Narodzenia
What are your Christmas memories?