Christmas 2016: Nostalgia

I’m not quite sure where they got it — maybe we gave it to them, or perhaps they just bought it themselves. In a way it doesn’t matter. What matters is that when E found the little Leap Frog play house that was just like the one he played with as a little toddler (“Daddy, I’m not a toddler any more. I’m a little boy.”), he was utterly enchanted. He took the little house over to the small couch in the sitting area just off of the dining room in our friends’ house (they do Christmas; we do Easter; another family has taken Halloween, even though it’s not a traditional Polish holiday) and just played with it as if it were the greatest thing. I wondered for a moment if perhaps he was experiencing his first little bout of nostalgia.

I always wonder about that: what will set my kids off when they’re adults, what will send them back into the past with a certainty that times were somehow better then and a strange emptiness with the realization that those times will never return. Or maybe that’s just the stuff of romantics, and perhaps my kids won’t grow up to be nostalgic romantics.

But there are worse things than being nostalgic romantics. Nostalgic romantics get to sing Christmas carols with an abandon that others lack. The act is a time machine.

It’s what makes movies like White Christmas so charming almost seventy years later.

And that’s all I’ve got for this Christmas…

Wigilia 2016

What makes this Saturday different from any other Saturday? If I look back at Saturdays over the course of my life, what a change I see. How I spent my Saturdays when I was my children’s age is so very different from how they spend they theirs. Better? In a way. Worse? Also true, in a way.

The Boy started the day with a speech for us all.

The Boy started the day with a speech for us all.

If K were to take the time to look back over the Saturdays of her life and compare them to what her children do, how they spend Saturday, there too would be enormous change. Better? In a way. Worse? Also true, in a way.

The point is, K and I are both in a place in our life that we probably never would have imagined when we were our children’s age. Both of our lives at their age were about waiting, in a sense. K and her family were often waiting in lines in still-Communist Poland; I was waiting for the end and a new beginning.

Finished zakwas and mushrooms

And yet, there’s still the waiting today. It’s part of life. Waiting for the wild mushrooms (picked in Poland, dried in Babcia’s kitchen, smuggled in our checked luggage, and waiting for months in the freezer) thaw then re-hydrate. Waiting for the zakwas to finish its fermenting so we can have the properly sour barszcz for dinner. Waiting for the prunes, apples, oranges, cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ginger cubes, and brandy to release their magic to make the Christmas kompot.

Magic in a pot

The preparation, the waiting, is itself magical. K keeps everything moving, and I am constantly asking, “What now?” I dice the potatoes for the mushroom soup. “Not too big, not too small.” I hold one cube up.

“They could be a little bigger.” I try again and hold up a cube for inspection.

“That’s a bit too big.” But I don’t mind. I’m just glad that I’ve found a place to help other than taking out the compost again and again — peelings from all the fruits and veggies, then the cooked veggies from the stock, those that won’t go into the salad that is — and cleaning up the house.

Grating beets at a one-second exposure

While all this waiting is going on, there are things to do, of course. The table needs to be set. This is one of the things I leave to K. It’s not that I wouldn’t know how to do it — I’m not that bad. But it’s something K enjoys doing, a creative endeavor as I enjoy creating this site.

Gospel reading for the evening already prepared

We begin with a Gospel reading and sharing the opłatek. The Boy likes the wafer enough that he just sits and eats it as if it were a snack.

The dinner itself goes by in a flash. No matter how we try to slow things down (which we actually did this year), it still seems to go by entirely too quickly. We putting the barszcz on the table, and suddenly it’s desert time. For the kids, that’s a good thing: they can’t wait to tear into their presents. For K, I guess it’s a little bittersweet.

The menu is a traditional one (mouse-over to see details).

Dinner over, we head to the living room for presents. Probably this is the best part of the day for the kids: they can’t imagine what it’s like to go to bed Christmas Eve without the presents as we do it Polish style — everything opened tonight.

And I guess, truth be told, it’s everyone else’s favorite as well. The gifts we get? Who cares, really, except for one gift: the kids’ joy. The Girl got what she’s been talking about for ages: a bow and arrow set. When she saw one in Kmart the other day (when we went to find something or other for decorating), she was insistent that we buy it. That she buy it.

“Please Daddy, I have enough money!”

Papa demonstrates proper drawing technique.

But I already knew Nana and Papa had bought a set for her, so I held my ground and played the mean Daddy. “Can we get it after Christmas?” became the mantra, to which I answered, “Nope, probably not.” Now she understands; then, she was just frustrated. Yet another thing Daddy says “No” about.

The four-year-old’s heart’s deepest longing

The Boy’s big prize: a fishing rod from our fishing neighbor. “Oh, I’ve been wanting one of these for years!” he exclaimed.

We talk and laugh, and before anyone knows it, it’s almost time for Christmas vigil Mass. Nana and Papa head home, and we pile into the car and head to our new parish.

Father Longenecker’s homily focuses on the three animals that are traditionally thought to have been in the barn with Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus. There’s the donkey, which seems to symbolize how we’re all so stubborn in a way. Yet it was a donkey that Christ rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There’s a continuity there.

Next, there’s the ox, which usually labors under a yoke. Three decades later, Jesus to his disciples says that “my yoke is sweet and my burden light” and invites the disciples to take up his yoke. But the early Church Fathers saw in this a parallel with taking up the cross of Christ. Just as the older ox in a pair takes the heavier load, so Christ.

Finally, there’s the sheep. This reminds us of the fact that Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and the Agnus Dei. (Below: Penderecki’s Agnus Dei — not from tonight’s Mass.)

In closing, Father speaks of the simple crib the infant Jesus had, a manger. It’s close to “eat” in French, and therefore etymologically related to the Latin, the original language of the Church. The Church Fathers saw this as symbolic too, with the manger foreshadowing an altar and Jesus as the Eucharist.

It’s a blessing to end the evening in such a beautiful space; it’s a blessing to have a priest who gives you something to think about; it’s a blessing to have a choir that sounds like this.

I kneel on the concrete floor, careful to put my left knee down since we don’t have a kneeler as we’re sitting in the overflow seating and I know what will happen if I put any weight on my right knee, and I think back to the beginning of the day, to my thoughts that have been bouncing around all day: what makes this Saturday any different from any other Saturday? We do. Our decision to make it different makes it different. We could abandon all tradition, we could order pizza and watch silly movies, or just go about our day as if it were any other Saturday, but we don’t. And that’s what makes it different.

I look to my fellow parishioners and familiar thoughts swirl about: even if all of this is human-made, even if the wafer the priest holds aloft as the altar server clangs the altar bell remains just a wafer, there is value in all of this, in the singing, in the humbling (after all, isn’t that Christmas is about, the ultimate humbling?) of ourselves, the stopping one day a year and looking about us and seeing all that’s beautiful in the little spheres we orbit.

Previous years

Baking 2016

It’s been a tradition in our house and on this site for years now — a record of all the chaos that’s been going on the last day or so getting ready for Wigilia tomorrow night. Almost ten years’ worth, starting in 2007.

Christmas Preparation

It’s always the same — sometimes even the same menu. Sometimes, like this year, we try something new, but not too new. Makowiec — a traditional dessert for Wigilia, but one we’ve never made. And even if it were the identical menu year after year, there’s more: there’s the act of baking, the act of cleaning, the fussing, the worrying.


There are the disasters and near-disasters: cakes that didn’t turn out like they were supposed to; mixers that cease mixing; real and imagined worries and stress.

Christmas 2011 Baking

Some years K is always trying to bake while I try to clean up the mess behind her, which usually ends up cleaning up beside her, which ends up making more mess than if I’d just leave it all alone.

Pre-Wigilia Messes

Some years I turn my attention outdoors, smoking meats or mowing the lawn one last time to get up the leaves that have accumulated and occasionally because the grass actually needs it, even in December.

And Repeat

But those are just repetitions that have longer cycles. I don’t mow every year around this time, but the mowing falls on the baking day every now and then. I don’t force my way into the kitchen every year, but every three or four years, I fancy myself helpful.

Wigilia Prep 2015

Today, though, I managed to do a little of everything. Perhaps that’s because, despite the repetition, we have one new element in this yearly ritual: it’s all happening in a new kitchen.


The barszcz takes several days to prepare because you have to ferment the beet juice first, and that takes a while. The herring salad takes a couple of days to make because it has to marinate. Or rather, re-marinate. The fish course — trout this year — is unpredictable, so we ordered it a week ago, for pick up on Saturday morning.

And of course for the kids, it’s been a year in the waiting.

Making the List

Making the list for tomorrow’s shopping is a process that takes as much planning as the cooking itself. I guess that goes without saying: you want to make sure your list has everything you need so that you don’t have to go back out. There’s no way I want to have to go out on Saturday to get anything — anything — we’ve forgotten, so making this list now reduces the chances of that happening. It began last night, sitting at the kitchen table, cookbooks everywhere, and it continued in the afternoon and evening tonight.

Taking a short dance break requires less planning. When you’re listening to highlander Christmas carols and you grew up dancing, it comes naturally. And that’s to say nothing of K.

Early Christmas

A package for Christmas from the Polish shop.

Plums in chocolate, finger-sized sausages (“You can eat as many of those as you want this summer in Poland,” I told E when he fussed about not being able to eat yet another bit), fermented rye flour for soup (L requested it for her birthday meal — that’s my Polish girl!), fat links of sausage, German coffee (the type I always bought in Poland — Tchibo Exclusive, which you can get from Amazon, but it’s not the same, is it?), and other goodies.

When I got home, K excitedly led me to the front door to show me a box sitting by the door. “How wonderful,” I thought, not realizing what was in it.

How wonderful, indeed.

Christmas 2015 Playlist

Wigilia 2015

“I can’t believe how mean they are this year,” one teacher said to me just the other day. Sadly, I’m not sure it’s just a “this year” issue. I think it’s a “this culture” issue. So many kids tend to dwell so deeply in the negative in their relations to each other that it’s stunning some of them have friends at all. There are always comments, put-downs, insults. When called on it, they often suggest they’re just playing, but often enough, they don’t hide the fact that they’re not playing: they’re just hurling insults at each other. Social media only worsens the situation because it gives them the possibility of extending such behavior beyond the walls of the school. And so some students, it seems, live day and night, at school and at home, in a fog of insults and bullying.

This is not to say such is the case for all of my students. It seems to fall along the socio-economic divide that splits our school so visibly. The students who tend to be academically behind tend to be most likely to exhibit such behavior and mean it, and they tend to be poorer than their peer who are academically ahead and only engage in joking (though still biting) insults.

On the internet, though, it seems to cut through all socioeconomic divisions, all political divisions, all divisions. Just take a look at the comments at the bottom of any article on any web site. Liberals call conservatives idiots; conservatives call liberals idiots. Fans of Star Wars call non-fans idiots; non-fans call fans idiots. Using the single word “idiot” glosses over much of the ugly reality of the words they use. We use — for I’ve gotten carried away online and done the same. Perhaps not call someone an idiot, but suggest that anyone who holds such and such a view is mentally defective somehow. With the suggested anonymity, it’s easy to get carried away, I suppose.

Today’s students have grown up in such a world, and it’s second nature for them. But what about the opposite movement? What about the desire to say kind things? The urge to brighten someone’s day with the power of the spoken word? It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. Kathryn Frattarola summarizes it succinctly:

If we like something, we keep our mouth shut about it, or we discuss it as minimally as possible. If we don’t, we’re extremely vocal about it. We are more drawn to the negative than to the positive. We are choosing to be miserable and make others miserable as well. (Source)

So many of us tend to shy away from that because it seems to open a vulnerability in ourselves. We wear so many masks, play so many roles, that sometimes an act of genuine sincerity seems the hardest thing to do. We’re letting down all our masks and speaking not as a teacher, a peer, a cool kid, a nerd, but simply as a human being when we say something kind to someone else. Insults and jokes are easy because they keep the mask up. Complements and words of appreciation let that all down. It’s a difficult thing to do.

But what if we all did it at once, all at the same time? Might it not be easier then?

In our culture we don’t have many opportunities where everyone takes a moment and utters kind words to each other. Sure, if we’re Catholic, there’s the point in the Mass where we “offer one another a sign of peace.” But, except for our family and friends we might be sitting with, that’s just a perfunctory handshake with or nod to the strangers who happen to be sitting around us. “Peace be with you,” we all mutter, and that’s that.

From  my time in Poland, though, I knew of a tradition that accomplishes just that, at least in theory: the sharing of the the opłatek, the Christmas wafer. Breaking the small wafer and offering well wishes wasn’t something we just did in the family; in school, every class had its own opłatek day, and students wished each other well, hugged, shook hands, perhaps cried a bit. Even students who didn’t get along terribly well put aside their differences for the time being and played along. Was it farce? Perhaps a little, with some. But there was too much genuine joy in the room for there to be too many people faking it.

For a long time, I thought it might be a worthwhile activity to try in class the last week of school. There were always barriers, though. The first was finding the wafers. While they’re readily available in any corner food market in Poland this time of year, they’re impossible to find here. Certainly one could ask in-laws to send them, but enough for 100+ students? That might be asking a bit much. And then there was the year I had the Jehovah’s Witness twins, and any reference to anything religious at all got a call from mom and an explanation that “we don’t celebrate X.” (I got such a call from her when I showed students my All Saints’ Day pictures at the end of October. “Ma’am, I wasn’t ask them to celebrate anything. I was just showing them what a different culture looks like.” “Yes, but we don’t celebrate Halloween…”) This year, though, it struck me that perhaps I could substitute something for the Christmas wafers. And I knew if I explained it correctly, there would be no religious overtones at all — and besides, I have no one in class this year whose parents have the same kinds of concerns as the twins’ mother several years back.

I built it up for an entire week, including in my lesson plans for Friday merely the word “surprise.” How many students download lesson plans is likely negligible, but I also mentioned it in class.

“Are we having a Christmas party Friday, Mr. Scott?” students asked.

“Not really, but I do have a surprise for you.”

“What!?!” Just like our three-year-old in so many ways.

“Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore.”

From the beginning, though, I was wondering how well it would go. In the worst case scenario, I thought they might share with one or two, then begin sitting down, having their own little typical conversations. I thought it was possible that a few might even refuse to participate at all. Of course I won’t make anyone do anything, I thought, for that would ruin the whole spirit of the opłatek tradition. Still, one or two refusing — might be trouble, I worried. As with all activities, I also expected different responses from different classes. I anticipated the student who are least engaged in school to be least engaged in the activity, and I anticipated those most engaged in school to find it most interesting. I expected classes with the most behavior problems to exhibit the most reluctance. Basically, I expected the worst, hoped for the best.

It began with a short slide show about Christmas in Poland. I explained that almost every Christmas in southern Poland is a white Christmas.

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I skipped over the one picture I could find of friends breaking the opłatek, explaining that we’d come back to it, suggesting in my tone that it was a bit of a mistake to include it at all. Finishing up the presentation, I went back to the image of my friends sharing the Christmas wafer and explained the tradition to the students. “And it’s not just in people’s homes that Poles do this,” I concluded, “but also in school. I’ve always thought it might be interesting to share the opłatek tradition with students here in the States, but I could never find the wafers.” And I still have never found them here, in this part of the States. Yet it occurred to me this year that it’s not the actual wafer that matters; it’s the act itself, the tradition. So when K found pizzelle at Aldi, I knew I’d found my replacement.

“Hold it in your left hand,” I explained as I passed out the pizzelle, “and then break off a small bit from your friend’s.” I demonstrated, then smiled and wished them all a merry Christmas. What came next was the last thing I was expecting and the greatest gift students have ever given me.

They picked up their waffers and acted as if they had been doing this all their lives. Kids who normally don’t get along were making an effort to search each other out and wish each other well. Kids whose behavior causes problems more often than not sought me out for special wishes. “I hope all your classes are better next near.” “I hope all the students behave next year.” There was such a level of warmth and joy in the classroom that I’ve truly never experience before. The way they embraced the whole act of offering each other wishes for the new year — it was as if they were drinking water after crossing a desert, as if they had been craving this so deeply and for so long. And once again, there was a noticeable difference in the classes: the groups that encountered less success in school were much more enthusiastic about it. And what I most feared, that some would break bread with a couple of friends and then sit down, never happened. The pizzelle finished, they continued talking, wishing each other well, hugging and shaking hands.

It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in a classroom.

As for our Wigilia, it was a low-key, quiet affair. Everything just a little less than the years before, and by choice. One soup instead of two; a couple of cakes instead of a pantry-full.

Fewer gifts, fewer guests — smaller, smaller, smaller. A good change.