Oh, look. Christmas is upon us.
For those of us who have lost a loved one, the holidays are exquisitely painful. Birthdays, anniversaries, and other days of memory are always tinged with sadness, but Christmas gets an extra large helping of suffering.
My parents loved Christmas. We had an inexpensive stereo system in the living room, which was always turned to EZ Rock 97.3FM, and once December hit, all they ever played were Christmas tunes.
We loved it. You’d hear the same songs over, and over again numerous times. That got to be minutely irritating, but it was worth it.
Tata would be belting out “Silver Bells” in his faux operatic tenor, while Ma and I would roll our eyes. On the inside, we were giggling. Dad was a complete dork.
Now you know where yours truly gets it from.
Polish people don’t mess around with Christmas. It is taken very seriously, and preparation is done in advance. Mama would bake these small, shortbread style cookies that were sandwiched together with raspberry jam. These would be made weeks before, and stored in in our cold storage room. They were extremely tasty cold, and you better believe I snuck one or two, or many. And then would promptly get in shit for it.
Mama would scurry in the kitchen, furiously making cream cheese and potato perogies (ruskie, or Ruthenian) in large batches. She would freeze them and they’d be ready to be dunked into boiling hot water for Christmas Eve dinner.
Mama also made this incredible wild mushroom borscht. It was a dark, potent brew, filled with small tortelinni style packages stuffed with wild mushrooms. It had amazing depth, and a slight sourness that got you in the back of your jaw. It was my favourite part of Christmas Eve dinner.
Being Catholic, meat was not served.
But there was fish.
I had serious problems with this from a very young age.
“MAMA! But fish is meat!”
“NO EEZ NOT PACHOO”
“Mom. Fish. It’s meat”.
Many years later, with a degree in smart-assedness:
“Hey Ma…fish is flesh. So, you know…that makes it MEAT MA”
We had salmon, we had breaded sole, we had Polish “Greek” fish. What?
It’s fish layered with grated carrot, celery root, onion, some seasoning and a little tomato paste. I never ate it. It looked weird to me. Even when I hit my mid-twenties, I still wouldn’t eat it.
Compote or kompot was a delightful stewed fruit drink. Hot, and sweet, you sipped the ‘broth’ if you will, and ate the stewed peaches, prunes, apples and other chunks of merriment with pleasure.
With that same stereo playing carols care of EZ Rock, we devoured soup, perogies, various non-meat (!) fish dishes, kompot, more perogies, maybe some Black Seal Rum if you were lucky and Mama was in a good mood. Oh my god, the food.
After dinner, you were stuffed. You were so stuffed, in fact, you had no idea how you were going to march up the flight of stairs leading to our family room, where we had a real wood-burning fireplace, our gorgeous Christmas tree AND MORE FOOD. COOKIES AND CAKE.
Presents were exchanged; the television was put on with some typical Christmas movie on. Celebrating went late, as attending Christmas Eve Mass was essential.
I hated it as a child, but over the years, I’ve grown a certain level of respect for it. Good on you if you’re awake and sober by midnight. I haven’t stepped foot in a church in years, for fear I may blow up, or the entire establishment goes up in flames the very moment my fingertips are dipped in holy water.
I am a recovering Catholic. Don’t get me started.
In typical Polish Catholic tradition, opłatek was passed around before dinner. That’s O-PWA-TEK. It’s a wafer similar to the one given out during Mass, but this one is stamped with a nativity scene. Everyone gets a piece. Then everyone goes around to everyone else, breaking off a piece of their own opłatek with the other person and sharing it, all while wishing them enormous blessings and good tidings, health, joy, money and good will for the new year. Hugs and big wet Polish kisses abound. It was a bit embarassing as a child. I must admit, I miss it now. It is a touching, emotional ritual. Ritual is as old as humanity, and I am firmly convinced of the importance of it in our lives. It is entrenched in our DNA, our cell memory, our universal consciousness. Ritual harkens back to older times, to a drum beat, to sacred ceremony. Today, our rituals may include listening to vinyl, preparing a luscious cup of tea, meditating on mala beads, or sharing pieces of opłatek with loved ones on Christmas Eve.
Now that I think about it, every part of Christmas Eve was ritualistic. Food is by far, the most important ritual of all. Sharing delicious, homemade food with loved ones is social, sacred and loving. Laughter is spread like butter on rye, joy and humour fills the air like the smell of kompot simmering away on the stove.
I’m often asked about perogies during the Christmas season. I’ve made perogies from DE SCRATCH once since my parents passed. It’s a mountain of work. You have to make dough. It has to chill. You have to make filling. It must taste just like Mama’s or else, why bother? That means onions chopped finely and fried slowly in butter, with salt and lots of freshly cracked black pepper. Potatoes boiled and mashed, with those savory onions added in and a generous helping or two, or three of Philly cream cheese. It had to be Philly. I’m serious. They didn’t taste the same if it wasn’t Philly.
They were a huge hit. Everyone was in awe. My mother-in-law commented that they were not at all like store-bought, as the dough was nice and thin.
You damn right it was. Rolling that dough was akin to a Crossfit WOD. I used a French style rolling pin, not the kind that’s a cylinder on a rod, and it spins, thus doing the work for you.
I don’t know that I’ll ever make perogies ever again. They are an extreme pain-in-the-ass (and not even Mama liked making them), and labour intensive. They’re also made with flour. I don’t avoid wheat just because it’s anti-Paleo/Primal, but I am assuredly gluten-intolerant. I eat wheat, and only a few minutes later, I’m in pain. It’s not worth it.
I am fully capable of retaining memories, traditions and rituals in other ways. I usually put on EZ Rock at home on my days off. It puts a bounce in my step and makes routine chores seem more enjoyable.
I’ve married into a Swedish family, and that means a very meat heavy Christmas Eve dinner (HAHA MAMA!!!), and some cabbage, pickled herring, rye bread, marzipan and chocolate truffles, and lots of wine. In the past nine years, I’ve celebrated a little too hard, shall we say, and Christmas Eve Mass has missed me again and again.
This year will be different.
While I won’t be stepping foot in a Catholic church, I will be visiting a United church my mother adored on Christmas Eve. It was one year she decided to do something different, and she was completely mesmerized by the evening.
The church was completely dark. Black and mysterious.
But the lights. Oh, de lights, PACHOO.
They had lit candles everywhere.
It was so BEWTIFOOL PACHOO.
She had tears in her eyes gushing all about it.
I’ve flirted with the idea of going one year.
This year, the flirtation ends. And I’ll be thinking of Mama the entire time. If I lose it completely and bawl my eyes out, so be it. If I don’t, so be it.
So be it.
However you remember your deeply-missed loved ones during the holidays, don’t beat yourself up over the past. It’s dead. It’s only a memory, and what is a memory? A thought. Your mind has probably misconstrued and twisted it since then. The past only has power if you steep yourself in it. Do you really want to camp out back there? Do you really want to exist in steeped, over-wrought misery and pain?
I suppose you can. Open the door of your heart, and let that slimy bastard in. You may not want to be friends with it, but maybe acquaintances?
But sit with it. Sit in that pain, that agonizing, sharp stabbing in your heart. Breathe deeply. But sit with it. Here it is, it’s here. You don’t have to like it.
Once you allow yourself to feel it, instead of pushing it away…the pain…
…it will leave. You will not even have noticed when, but it does.
Then celebrate your health, your joy, even if it’s only a shred. They would want you to be happy.
It’s not one day at a time. Hardly.
Grief is an intense process, and in the case of parents, I do not suspect it’s something one ever moves beyond. You only get one set of parents. No matter what your relationship with them, and mine was tumultuous most times, they are ingrained in you, in every part of you. In every cell that makes you.
I will fondly remember Tata proudly singing “Silver Bells”, and if Anne Murray’s version comes on, I will surely cry. So I will let it. Just be it.
I will remember the smell of wild mushrooms, the taste of kompot tickling my tongue, and the crackling of opłatek in my palm.
Remember, and smile. Smile and radiate their love and joy within you. Father, mother, sister, brother, whoever that may be. We all have memories of Christmas with those who have moved past the veil. Keep them close, and smile deeply, down to your gut, your liver, past your appendix, and way deep inside, to your soul.
Whatever you celebrate in the month of December, I wish you a blessed, healthy, warm, loving, romping, hollering, eclectic good time, and a fabulous new year.
(Don’t worry, the food posts haven’t stopped).