So often in life, things come to an end and we don’t even realize that we’re living through last moments of this or that. Someone might lose a job and the whole family leaves, and you never see them again. More tragically, someone might pass away unexpectedly, and we regret deeply that we didn’t know that the last time we were with that person.
When an end comes and we know it’s the end, then we tend to savor it all the more.
Friends are moving to Connecticut. Good friends, for the last several years. Christmas, Easter, and Halloween we have always been together for the last several years. And tonight was the last time we’ll all be together for Christmas, perhaps for good. Sure, we talked about going up to Connecticut for a visit, but the chances of that happening, of us all being together like that, are quite honestly very slim.
It added a gray lining to the rest of the evening.
Down at the bottom of the page, there are posts about the last several wigilias. How many? K and I were counting this evening after the food had been put away, the dishes washed, the presents opened. Thirteen together with Nana and Papa, which would make fifteen together as a couple. I stop and think about it: that would make the first in 2002. Surely that’s not right. We got married in 2004, and we were engaged in 2003. I check my photos from that period and sure enough, there are the pictures of K preparing food at the table where this summer she sat with Babcia in the morning chatting over tea.
Fifteen years. Fifteen times we’ve put up a Christmas tree together, cooked and cleaned for wigilia together (though K has done the vast majority of the cooking), bought gifts together.
We began all this a couple of years before the students I currently teach were born.
It’s not that I’m obsessed with how much time has passed. I used to be that way, but I think it was youthful sentimentality that I eventually outgrew. It’s not that the time has passed but that I no longer really notice it. Not like I did when I was so eager to be somewhere I wasn’t at that moment, when I looked ahead instead of looked around, so eager to be older, beyond where I was, not who I was. Grown. And truth be told, I never really felt that way — grown — until things became serious with K, when the future began to take definitive form. But since then, with our move to the States, the birth of our children, the purchase and eternal remodeling of our house, the pressures of our jobs, and all the other things that pack our days and nights, I don’t often give it much thought.
That’s the greatest gift of wigilia: a pause, a step out of time with the rest of our lives, a ritual that calls us to reflect and remember the past and appreciate the present.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing. We have the same preparation rituals, the same cleaning. The one change: the involvement of the kids increases. The Boy eagerly helps with anything; the Girl, not so much, but that is changing as she matures. She’s eleven now, nearing what promises to be one of the most challenging and rewarding period, her teens. Wigilia always provides a metric for growth, both in the amount of help she provides and the willingness with which she eats some of the things she’s not really crazy about.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. We eat the same foods with little repetition. Barszcz z uszkami, pierogi z kapustą i grzybami, jakaś ryba. Zawsze tak samo. It’s the ultimate comfort food, recipes that have passed through generations with little change. I sometimes wonder what L and E might do with their families after we’re gone. Will they take these recipes with them? Will they find themselves reminiscing on Christmas Eve about how different their Christmas Eves were as children?
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing.We follow the same script with little repetition. A nativity story, usually from Matthew. We sing a Christmas carol, usually “Silent Night.” We share the opłatek. And our wishes for each other never change, always involving health in one form or other. Is there anything else we need to worry about? Is there a greater or more important wish we could have for others?
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. We even give the same gifts (a photo yearbook of the previous year’s adventures). It’s not the most fiscally generous gift, but it’s what everyone really wants. “We always look forward to getting it,” K’s sister-in-law once told us, and in truth, K and I truly enjoy making it. It’s a challenge to narrow a year’s worth of pictures (approximately 12,000 in 2017) to a selection to fit into roughly 150 pages. And for me, it’s always the same: a bottle or two of some libation. We’re all so easily pleased.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing. We end the same way, sitting around drinking coffee, listening to carols, watching the kids play with their toys. This is something that will eventually change. L no longer gets toys, not in the sense of something she can play with. E will reach that point too. In ten years, L will be in college, E in high school, and what gifts will we be giving then? Lego won’t be so very special, but we’ll figure that out. Hopefully, the gift of just being home — the Girl coming home from her junior year of college in ten years — will be enough.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. I end the evening alone, drink at hand, chewing on a cigar (and it’s even been the same cigar for the last few years, I would bet: a Partagas Black Label — a dark, earthy, rich, strong nicotine kick in the pants to end the evening), with Christmas music playing (this year, Chanticleer’s Psallite! A Renaissance Christmas), working on pictures taken throughout the day, then writing about it all — writing the same thoughts.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing.
And yet there are all the little changes, little jewels of growth and change that make this year different from last. The Girl, singing soprano in the children’s choir under the direction of a new choirmaster who, looking for a change, has come through a miraculous chain of events from the Vatican where he was assistant music director at the Sistine Chapel to our little church in Greenville and has made the music of Mass positively angelic. The Boy, trying so hard to be a man, agreeing to change into more formal clothes because K explained that I would be doing the same. K, realizing she doesn’t have to do everything every year — notice: no kapusta z grzybami or zupa grzybowa on the menu, and only two deserts — and having a much more relaxed day as a result.
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.
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.
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).
Barszcz z uszkami
Kompot made of prunes, apples, and oranges, spiced with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and honey
Trout with potatoes and Orawian-style beets
Pierogi z kapusta i grzybami
Baltimore-style crap cakes
Makowiec, gwiady betlejemskie, cygan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.