Wigilia 2017

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.

We’re all growing.

The truth is, everything changes every wigilia.

Everything.

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.

Nearing

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.

Grinding

The Boy always likes helping in the kitchen. He likes helping anywhere, but especially in the kitchen. These days of Advent, that’s always a good thing: K can use all the help she can get in the kitchen.

Tonight: filling for the Christmas Eve dinner dumplings — the uszka (for the barszcz) filled with mushrooms and the pierogi stuffed with a sauerkraut-mushroom mixture. There’s lots of sauteing and grinding. We probably go through two sticks of butter in the process.

“We’re Polish, so that means we use butter for everything,” the Boy exclaims as we cook.

Tonight, we try out our new grinder attachment for the silver Beast, which usually sits on one of the racks in the basement but has spent Advent on the counter top upstairs. We finally have enough counter space to do it, why not?

We have definitely moved past the “It’s so new — don’t touch anything” phase of our new kitchen. It’s like the old one never existed. Certainly makes the pictures look better.

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.

Wigilia 2014

Our last Christmas in Poland was ten years ago. I could probably dig through some pictures and find shots from that day. There would be a lot that’s the same. K of course would be there, as would the compote, fish dish and some sort of soup — likely the same soup we served this evening.

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There would have been similar pictures of preparation: of ironing, of setting the table, of getting kids ready.

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There would possibly have been pictures of someone — K’s father? her mother? — reading the gospel passage about the nativity before dinner.

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There would have been pictures of a grandchild (K’s nephew W) cuddling with babcia.

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The changes, of course, would be in the people involved. Some present this evening would be absent from pictures of our last wigilia in Poland; some present then are absent from pictures of this evening. Some of the pictures could be recreated with older versions of the photo’s subjects while others can’t occur again in this world.

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Certainly that is the draw of traditions: while the world is changing around us, while we ourselves are changing, there are a few things that remain constant, a few things we can count on.

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There’s probably some psychological term for this need we have to organize our lives around traditions. Perhaps more than one because it seems that’s what obsessive-compulsive disorder is: taking “traditions” to the extreme. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say we’re all a little OCD in our own special ways.

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Wigilia could certainly provide plenty of material for someone excessively obsessed with order as he sees it to get bent out of shape about. K and I used to be a little like that. Perhaps K more, since she did almost all the work and always had this image in her head of what it was all supposed to be like, sort of a Platonic form of the perfect wigilia dinner.

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There was a time when, perhaps, our lack of authentic opłatki (how did that happen?!) might have been more emotionally problematic for one of us, or both. Perhaps, or maybe not. It’s hard to tell looking back. But yesterday, looking in the cookie and cracker section of the local grocery story, I found it amusing that I was looking for a substitute for something I could have easily found ten years ago at any number of stores.

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Tonight, though, it wasn’t about the food, or the opłatki, or the compote, or the perfectly ironed table cloth, or the piles of baked goods, or even the gifts.

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Tonight, it was about the little flashes of joy that the children experienced. L was thrilled, as always, with barszcz. (Not entirely — she prefers the Ukranian variety, made without the fermented beets that give wigilia barszcz its slight kick) The Boy was overjoyed that Santa had brought, as E had expressed countless times, a police car for him.

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And everyone was happy about the deserts — that’s a tradition worth being OCD about.

Wigilia 2013

“You girls got to play all day yesterday; today, you’ll be helping out a lot.” Thus began the day, and thus the girls began their day of helping, much of which was more spiritual than physical. Still, transferring the clean dishes from the dishwasher and moving the dirty breakfast dishes from the table to the dishwasher was a good start

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And so for a change, every year’s is not the same, at least at the start. The girls all chip in throughout the morning, taking care of the Boy as he horses about,

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or cutting veggies for the Christmas morning breakfast. (How odd I used to find it that a Polish breakfast might include a salad of some sort or other; how odd I now find it that I used to find it odd.)

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It’s always amusing to me how a little Tom Sawyering can turn anything into a game for kids this age. At one point, one of the girls suggested they go up L’s room to play. “No,” the other two replied, “we want to help.”

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As the day turned to afternoon, though, the Girls’ help became more spiritual, less physical. T took out her holiday music and began playing for the Girls as they sang carols.

They began with “Angels We Have Heard on High,”

and followed it with “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” to which E added some avant garde accompaniment.

As we continued cutting, chopping, boiling, spicing, setting the table,

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and whining, the girls performed “Silent Night,”

and moved quickly to a very interesting arrangement of “Jingle Bells.”

Of course the girls wouldn’t be The Girls if they didn’t add something silly to the mix. T sat this one out, but C and L had great fun recording their version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

By this time, though, it was time to stop with the silliness and get started on the main courses for the evening. I went out to fire up the grill and the Girls all transformed. The Boy waited though. “He’s still wiping his nose on his sleeve,” K explained. “We’ll wait with him.” And so picture-perfect girls bounded about the house while I grilled salmon, fried an improvised invention (oyster and crab cakes, which I think I’ll try again), and Babcia looked on with a smile.

Once Nana and Papa arrived, the rest of the evening went by in a blur. We began as always: Papa read from the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 2.

I scooted about, taking pictures, directing L to stop messing with E and listen to Papa, and generally worrying that the crab/oyster cakes might not be as tasty as I imagined.

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The dinner itself went by in a blur, which is always the case, and I always find it somewhat tragic. So much time spent preparing barszcz z uszkami, crab/oyster cakes, mushroom soup (where did those mushrooms come from? surely not Poland!), cabbage and mushroom pierogis, salmon, potatoes, and salad, cheese cake, Polish sweets, and a million other delicacies and it’s gone in about an hour. We try to slow down; we all comment on the tragedy of it all; and every single year, we all inhale it. This year was no different, which is both a complement to the chefs and a sad illustration of how quickly we all tend eat.

For the kids, though, it was normal: there was only one thing on their minds. The presents.

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So we moved to the living room, listened to more caroling,

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and eventually began opening presents.

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We tried out some of the gifts

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and lamented and celebrated that such an evening occurs only once a year.

Wigilia Preparation

By the time we’re almost ready to sit down at the table, I’ve made at least six or seven trips to the compost bin. Eggs shells from the boiled eggs for the salads, limp, cooked vegetables from the stock for various soups, peelings from potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, all taken out to the compost bin, which I then turn with a pitchfork, letting oxygen in, steam out, to begin the regenerative process. In time, all of the cast off material will break down to near-elemental form and it will all serve as nourishment for tomatoes and raspberries, squash and snap peas, and whatever else we choose to grow next year. All we have to do is wait.

Wigilia 2012

We start the day like we ended the evening: the Boy in a great mood. He wakes up like this; he spends his day like this; he spends his evening like this. The only time there’s fussing is if there’s hunger or sleepiness involved.

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The Christmas fun begins, though, as soon as the Boy and I wake up the Girl and urge her to come downstairs. “There’s something you need to check,” I say, feeling a little strange at the thought of the inevitable: reading my own letter as if I’ve never seen it before. Is it lying? Yes, and no. It’s no more lying, I suppose, than “Dance with me Prince!” was a couple of years ago.

It’s become a common refrain in our house the last few days, dancing to this or that carol. “Dance with me, Prince!” we laugh to each other, giving that British long-A in “dance” that the Girl somehow developed when she was only three. The last few days, we’ve been dancing to everything, but mainly carols. We have our favorites, but for now, it’s not time to dance. It’s time to watch a small moment of surprised discovery.

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The letter waits, and the Girl comes down, still in her PJs and clutching her beloved Baby, not quite sure if she’s seeing what she thinks she’s seeing: an empty plate and a handwritten letter.

Of course I ate the cake and drank the milk last night, sitting by the tree as K wrapped the last presents. Perhaps next year we can leave Santa a cigar instead. Maybe a new camera lens.

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She sits to read what she can. “Dear L,” she begins, and unwilling to work further, brings it to me to read. As I read, I’m mindful of two things: the color ink and the last paragraph. She notices the former right away.

“It’s in red!” Indeed it is, because I used my fountain pen that I use to grade papers with. (Yes, I’m old-school and use red when marking papers. I’m not so worried about supposed psychological effects of the color. Content trumps form, doesn’t it?) Will she put the two together and observe, “Tata, you’re the only person I know who uses red”?

I decide to strike preemptively: “Well, Santa wears red, right? I guess he uses red ink.” Simple.

The last paragraph is not so simple. What was I thinking when I wrote that? I told her in the last paragraph what’s in her stocking. So I just switch antecedents: “What was Santa thinking?!” I ask as I get to the end. “I can’t read that final paragraph: he tells you too much about your stocking surprise.”

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And this reminds her that she hasn’t checked her stocking. It seems, from a distance, to be empty. “I think there’s paper inside,” she infers. Perhaps it could be like Babcia and Dziadek’s generous birthday gift from Poland: a single bill that is bigger than anything she’d seen before.

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Breakfast is a simple affair — a couple of bagels and some strong coffee — before we begin more peeling, cutting, slicing, ironing, scrubbing, vacuuming, entertaining, and rocking. We take a break for some carols.

Among them, my all-time favorite, the most perfectly beautiful carol ever written, with a text by Christina Rossetti put to music by the very-English Holst.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

After a while, the Boy is tired. It’s time for the morning nap, so I begin putting the Boy to sleep to the accompaniment of a Polish lullaby to the infant Jesus,

then go back downstairs to dance with L to this one:

Yet the simple joy is bound not to last: K comes to me with a small shopping list of things that are absolutely necessary yet have somehow been overlooked during the last three days of sporadic shopping. With a steady rain falling and the prospect of hoards of Christmas barbarians, I’m not thrilled with the idea of heading out. Still, necessity is necessity, and as I get in the car and hear the sirens of approaching rescue vehicles, I’m reminded that such “problems” are relatively insignificant.

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The shopping is relatively painless, and I return to find M has arrived. Like family, M spends almost every Christmas with us lately. She is the Boy’s godmother and plays the part well, encouraging him literally to walk before he can crawl. As if he needs much encouragement: simply picking him up slightly puts a wiggly bounce in his legs and he’s ready to hop, walk, and wobble.

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M isn’t the only thing that awaits me. As a sort of merry Christmas surprise, the CDs of Polish Christmas music we’d ordered and not expected until, say, Easter arrived. More versions of the same songs we’ve listened to every year. It’s sort of appropriate, though: we’re always doing the same thing at the same time of year.

The only things that change are the details — the arrangements. The jazzy feel to some of the carols make a perfect accompaniment to the final cutting and slicing for the inevitable Polish salad. No Polish meal can be complete without raw veggies in some form — surowka in Polish. At the very least, one can grate a couple of carrots, add salt and pepper, and call it a salad. We even have a Polish cookbook with a recipe for that! It’s a tough one to master, I hear.

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The Girl might manage, but she’s not into grating we’re not into letting her grate — too dangerous for little fingers. She does enjoy using the veggie cuber that looks like something off some infomercial. Arrange, press, presto: instant cubes. (Some pre-slicing required.)

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Finally, we reach a certain critical mass. Most everything that can be done early is done; the remaining food that will taste best freshly cooked is ready to be cooked; the table is set. It’s time to relax. There’s a perfect storm of dumplings and trout, toddies and gifts, cake and giggles that is waiting on the other side of sunset.

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And of course, take a few pictures of the table.

“Make sure you get a good shot of the embroidery along the edges,” K tells me, justifiably proud of her mother’s work. Of course I promptly forget. Still, there it is in the middle, a touch of blues and greens in an impossibly perfect circle that is impossibly perfectly centered in the table cloth, all perfectly measured to fit our table. Such a covering would cost hundreds — one of the countless family treasures we have.

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Soon, the guests — Nana and Papa — arrive, and it’s time to start.

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The soups are warm; the onion is browned; the scallops are ready to saute; the potatoes are boiled and ready for mashing. And so we begin. Papa reads St. Luke’s nativity account:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Some things are difficult to translate, but traditions such as these flow from one language and culture to another easily enough.

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The highlight of the Polish Wigilia tradition, though, is the sharing of the opłatek, which comes after the prayer, after the nativity reading, after the carol singing (we chose “Silent Night” this evening). It’s a tradition as old as civilization itself: the breaking of the bread. The thin sheets of unleavened bread have the flavor and consistency of communion wafers (and I’m sure they’re of the same recipe), but this is a broader communion, a communion between flawed mortals.

We mingle, breaking off bits of each other’s bread and wishing each other well for the year. Probably we end up saying the same things, or something similar, every single year. But this is a time when the gesture outshines the words in many ways, and besides, as Catholics (or most of us present are Catholic), we’re used to saying the same things year after year, week after week. It gives us a certain continuity, a certain surety and comfort.

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The meal itself paradoxically brings few surprises yet one shock, and that’s always for the best. The menu has been set for years: barszcz z uszkami, pierogi z kapust… i pieczarkami, zupa grzybowa, and some kind of fish (trout this year) serve as the basic  elements of the meal. As I said, thankfully no surprises there.  However, when the Girl begins eating her mushroom-filled dumplings in her barszcz, the shock is palpable. The little girl is growing up in so many ways it’s difficult to keep track of all the changes.

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The pierogi are a different story, though. At first she seems willing to give them a try, provided we play the yum game, a semi-clever trick I’ve been using to get her to eat broccoli. We take a bite and then see who can do the better job of savoring the food, chewing slowly with great and dramatic “Ummm!” and “Ooooh!” and similar silliness.

We get the first one down like this. Papa joins in on the second dumpling but has no better luck than I: L out-savors us both, though with an expression that makes me think a third is doubtful. But she’s already tried more in a few minutes than she’s tried in the last six months, so we say “Sure!” when the Girl asks if she can pass on the last two dumplings.

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Just as it’s time for the main course, the Boy wakes. It’s almost perfect timing: we’re able to relax for a bit while K changes the Boy and puts on his holiday outfit.

“Now you can’t tell me that’s not a handsome boy!” K proclaims as she walks down the stairs, and who could deny it?

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We sit down to the main course: whole broiled trout, scallops sauteed with lemon, basil, and garlic, a salad of leeks, raisins, gherkins, red onions, and a dozen mysteries, and (what Polish meal would be complete without) potatoes. Mid-meal I take a fish head and a bit of skin down to the cat, who sensed it apparently when I was at the top of the stairs, for she’s meowing madly and winding through my legs as I reach the basement where she’s sequestered herself during this time of seeming chaos.

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As I clean up the kitchen with Nana and M’s help, K takes the kids into the living room for some portraits. As often happens these days, the Girl gets carried away with the Boy, making wild and crazy faces, whooping and hollering. (Have I mentioned she’s fond of her little brother?) Still, K manages to get one semi-decent shot of the two of them.

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Yet when it comes time for the individual shots, the Boy shows why I often call him Little Man. He sits still, looking as serious as a banker. It ends as quickly as it begins, for there’s such a joy within him that it bubbles up at the slightest provocation: a funny face, goofy voice, a smile. If I had had the chance to break the opłatek with him, my wish would have been simple: I hope that the joy you experience now follows you throughout your entire life.

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Finally, it’s present time. “Should we start with the stockings and have some fun?” K asks, and thinking of what I’ve set up for our little princess, I nod enthusiastically.

L reaches into her stocking to discover…a slip of paper: “You’ve found a clue; now what to do? I’m in a shoe, but which one? Where do all the shoes live?” She heads straight to the hall closet and begins rifling through shoes. I realize the error I’d created, though, and suggested she look by the summer shoes in their box.

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She takes it to M for assistance. “Well, you’ve made the logical guess, which is much better than a mess. Where would you go to clean up a mess on your clothes?” She thinks for a moment then rushes to the laundry room, opening the washing machine lid.

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And what does she find there? The present? Certainly not — Santa would never make it so easy for her. It’s another clue. Her excitement at this point is building, and just as I was hoping, she seems to be enjoying the hunt as much as the prospect of getting some little something.

“That crazy Santa!” she comments,

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heading this time to Nana for help. “Very good! You’re getting close! Now, we need some music, but not just any kind. We need some music from just one finger: where could you get that music?” This is most certainly my worst clue.

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She comes up with several false starts before figuring out it’s among my sheet music on the piano.

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Papa helps with this clue: “I see we can’t trick you. I guess we’ll just have to tell. Your gifts are in the place you most fear, in two things that smell.” The place she fears most is, of course, the basement. Even though we play pool down there together, go to feed Bida, the cat, there together, and do a hundred and one things there, she’s often reluctant to go down into the basement. That’s only natural, I suppose.

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This time, though, she has no trouble heading down to find, in my stinky work boots (no, they don’t really stink — it was just a way to clue her into the shoe notion) two Barbie movies she’s been dying to watch for months. Netflix always has their status set as “Very long wait,” so when K and I found them in Target the other evening, we knew what the stocking stuffer had to be. And when we remembered how very small the stocking is, we knew a treasure hunt was the only answer.

Now I fear I’ll have to do it every year.

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The rest of the presents are a blur. The Girl passes out presents to us all, conscientious of spreading the joy. One for her, one for her brother, one for Nana, and so on.

Finally, the last present. The biggest, so to speak. The Girl tears open a smallish package to find…a small slip cover.

“I think that’s for your little laptop. I think Santa brought you a protective cover for it,” I say, using an old trick Nana and Papa used with me several times when I was a kid. “Shall we go and find it?” We had to her room, locate the pink laptop and bring it back down. She looks at the case, looks at her computer, and frowns.

“Won’t it fit?” I ask her, standing behind her.

“No,” she pouts.

Putting the small tablet we bought for her (really, for the family) in front of her, I say, “Here, maybe this one will fit.”

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For a while, the rest of the presents fade. We sit together, exploring all the new flicks and twists of the fingers that will bring her an entirely new world.

“She’s big enough for a real computer now,” K suggested months ago when we were thinking about presents. It turns out, she was right.

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The Boy inherits the old one. It’s something he’ll have to get used to, but he doesn’t seem to mind too much. It makes noise; it has buttons to press; and it tastes good. What else could he ask for?

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He lies on the floor, punching and squeezing, tasting and squealing, and once again, we get one of those rare gifts: a glimpse of the future.

Wigilia Vigil

As Christmas Eve (Wigilia) nears, the work pace turns frantic. The fact that Wigilia falls on a Monday this year makes things even more frantic. We have Sunday requirements to work into our Wigilia preparation work load. We split up Mass duty: K goes at 9:00, I go at 11:00. That leaves me with the little ones to entertain for a while.

“Let’s play Memory,” I suggest to L. I know it’s a losing proposition: she always wins. “Because it’s princesses!” she shouts in explanation as she heads up to her room. “I wonder how well you’d fare against me with a cigar band memory game,” I laugh to myself as she rifles through her game drawer. Unable to find the cards she returns somewhat dejected until I suggest that she make her own.

“Great idea! I’ll make them of my friends.”

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Something tells me I’ll fare no better with this version, but before long, she has pairs of drawings of this best friend from school and that best friend in general — the best best friend — as well as assorted other friends and acquaintances. But really, at this age, most of her friends are her best friends, so she draws them all. We never get to play the game, though, because Mama returns from Mass and we head out, exchanging the Boy in the process.

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As the afternoon approaches and the weather warms, K kicks us out. “I have more baking to do, and I don’t need the three of you in my hair.” The Boy and I head out for our usual walk, the loop I’ve been taking him on for seven months now. Strange how that has turned into something of a thermometer and chronometer: when we began the walks, we had to head out early in the morning, for by lunch time, it was entirely too hot; now we have to wait until after lunch because before the mornings are entirely too cold.

But perhaps not cold enough, for yesterday I mowed (!!) in a tee shirt, and today, I only need a long sleeve shirt to keep off the chill. Some might be tempted to envy, but believe me, it’s the other way around: I envy those who have a true, cold Christmas.

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We take a detour with the Girl as she rides up the street to visit one of her friends, who in turn decides to head back down to our house with us. I see them into the house then head off with the Boy.

K, in the meantime, is battling American cocoa.

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“It behaves differently from what I’m used to in Poland,” she explained years ago, before she mastered — more or less — the local options. She still probably doesn’t like it as much as what she grew up with, but that’s really understandable. Not many of us would prefer the new to what we’ve made memories from.

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Once the Slovakian Hedgehogs (as the cakes are called in Polish) are done, L decides she’s going to leave one for Santa.

“But today is only the twenty-third!” one might respond. Well, clearly such an individual knows little about the Polish tradition (at least my Polish in-laws’ tradition) of opening presents on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day. In that case, Santa must come at some point during the evening of the twenty-third. It makes no sense otherwise.

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We don’t know how much of this is play with the Girl and how much is genuine belief. She once told me that she knew that I was Santa, but she seems to be playing along these days as if she’s clueless. It’s more fun for us all that way. Among other things, I get to write the thank you note from Santa:

Dear L,

Thank you for the cake, milk, prunes, and carrot. Mrs. Claus will be very happy to hear about the carrot: she always says I need to lose a bit of weight. But can you imagine a skinny Santa? Me neither!

Please apologize to your mother for me. I had to use some of her paper to wrap your presents. Rudolf got a little rowdy coming over, and the sleigh tipped to one side, and all the wrapping paper fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

Finally, I know you were a bit disappointed with the little slip of paper in your stocking. Relax: it’s just a note to help you find the actual gift. You need a bigger stocking, girl!

Until next year,
Santa

In the stocking, a surprise for tomorrow evening — something she’s never quite experienced.

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Wigilia 2011

My first Wigilia — Christmas Eve — celebration was a tense affair. Six months in Poland in December 1996, I’d returned to the host family with whom I’d stayed during the twelve-week training session. While I got along marvelously with my host mother, her son (I suppose one would call him a “host brother”), four years my junior, was not always the most pleasant person to be around. “There’s a lot of tension between you two!” a fellow PCV remarked after spending some time with the two of us. The tension didn’t lessen that Christmas, and it was, in fact, the last time I visited them.

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The next year was the first Wigilia that gave me a hint of what it should be like. I spent it with neighbors in the small village in which I’d been posted. They were so much like family that I’d taken to calling the matriarch “Mama.” I had dinner with the whole family that snowy Christmas Eve before heading to Babcia’s to meet with the rest of the family. Laughter, singing, joy — I knew this was what Christmas Eve was supposed to be like.

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My third Wigilia was in Berlin, with family of an Indian friend that made for a warm mix of the Subcontinent and the Black Forest.

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The next time I celebrated a true Polish Wigilia was three years later, after having spent two years in Boston before realizing that there was something — little did I know at the time, someone — I’d left behind in Poland. I was back with my neighbors, now my landlords, as I was renting a room from them. Still like family, we celebrated another proper Wigilia, waiting for the first star to appear as the various aromas of the waiting feast drifted through the house.

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Finally, during Wigilia 2002, I spent the evening with K and her family. K and I had let our long friendship evolve into something more, and while I might not have been able that evening to say it with 100% certainty, it seemed like the first of many Christmas Eves together.

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Christmas Eve 2003 we were engaged. A friendship that had begun seven years earlier was a few short months away from becoming a life-long and joyous commitment.

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We married a little over four months before our third Christmas Eve together. My folks — Nana and Papa, though still two years away from being Nana and Papa — had sent a tree ornament that celebrated “Our First Christmas,” with an inset for a cameo-size photo. It hangs on our tree as I type, a yearly reminder of that first year together.

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By 2005, we were in the States. It was our first solo Wigilia in the kitchen. We learned a lot that year, including how to make the fermented-beet zakwas for barszcz.

In 2006, we had our first Wigilia as a family of three, the Girl still delicate bundle of spitting-up joy.

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Since then, we’ve begun new traditions, with new guests that arrive every year to celebrate this holy night with us. We share the opłatek, enjoy a traditional meal of barszcz z uszkami, pierogi, fish, kapusta. We open our gifts and try them out — “Can you hear me, over?”

When the guests are gone and my girls are asleep, I sit in the living room, reflecting at the wonder of love and family, and I find myself aware that, as perfect as this evening was, it can only get better.

Wigilia 2010

The food is prepared. The guests have arrived. The table is set. It’s time for the most-anticipated evening of the year: Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner.

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It’s the thirteenth time — seven in Poland, six in the States with K — that I’ve experienced what has become the highlight of the year.

We exchange the opłatek, sharing wishes for the coming year. Variations of “May this coming year be better than this closing year,” the eternal hope of humanity, echo through the kitchen.

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We begin the parade of food: two soups, dumplings stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, fish, salads, rice, desert after desert. Tradition dictates repetition, and the menu is no different. We have the same soups every year: barszcz z uszkami (borscht with dumplings) and wild mushroom soup. We have salmon as the main fish course, this year stuffed with crab meat.

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The appeal of tradition, though, is that you know what’s coming. There are no surprises. We’re comforted in the knowledge that at least this one thing has not changed, for change isn’t always positive. So while we play with the idea of switching the menu — maybe having a different fish — we always end up following tradition.

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After dinner, we open gifts. When I hear about some people’s expectations for Christmas presents (suggestions to buy $2,000 rings, piles of clothes, multiple video games), I wonder what’s the point. Such a Christmas is spoiled if one doesn’t get one’s material lusts satisfied.

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I often wonder how many people have such materialistic, shallow Christmas experiences: getting gifts, then retreating into solitude to play with the toys. It’s as if they’ve forsaken the real treasure of Christmas for silly trinkets.

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The real treasure is family and friends gathering together to share some laughs and companionship.

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