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December 24, 2002

Today is the day. Today is the day that defines all days, at least according to the tradition I grew up in. Anything that would happen today would then happen for the entire upcoming year, so today was the day to really behave well, not complain, wear the white shirt, walk the dog for the longest walk (today was also the night on which animals could talk, btw) and just help and do and get ready for the presents.
I really found it interesting that we were not allowed to eat all day though and that my mother would spend the entire day in the kitchen, while my ... I do not quite remember what my would do... probably also not eat all day.
My mother had to be in the kitchen all day because of this other amazing Polish tradition to have twelve (12!) dishes on the dinner table on Christmas eve. Twelve vegetarian dishes, and fish. The fish would be carp. Oh, now I remember what my would do on Christmas Eve. He would kill the Carp. It was a horrible event, because by the time Christmas Eve came, we all got used to the fish in the bathtub. It was not easy to get a living carp in Poland, but somehow everybody had to have one and then keep it in the bathtub for the last days before Christmas. This meant that there would be evenings spent in front of the bathtub, watching the big fish go in circles or just stare at us and say all those quiet things fish say in anger. So in the morning my dad would kill the fish. A horrible event, of course. It was supposed to be a reward for us kids (me the kid) to get the “toy” out of the animal, which were the two connected air bubbles that allowed the fish to float. They did not look like part an animal organ at all, they were just these two connected white air bubbles. Disgusting, I know. Carp is probably the least appetizing one of the fish. Maybe Fugu fish could have been worse, but at least it would be somehow tingly and interesting in taste. Even my mother could not make carp taste like anything but this bland stuff filled with bones over bones over bones. I think the first tradition we dropped when moving to Germany was the carp tradition. This way we could be clean in the days before Christmas, because we could use the bath and not leave it to the fish, my dad did not have to kill an animal on Christmas Eve, the defining day of the year and my mom did not have to prepare this really strange tasting stuff.
The other 11 dishes on the table actually tasted really great, maybe especially well after a day of not eating anything and playing and walking the dog. The dinner was packed with little rituals. There was the cross on the table and under the cross and under the best table cloth would be my mother’s purse with whatever money she could find in the house. There was the extra setting at the table for those who might come by the house just by accident, or the ancestors, or those who could not come. I think the door was unlocked to allow them to visit as well. It is very interesting that this particular tradition seems to actually come from the Passover dinner tradition, which is obviously much older than Christmas, because Jewish. There was the prayer at the table, and then there was the breaking of the Oblaten, an especially shaped communion bread, with pictures of the nativity scene. We would go from person to person at the table and just wish each other the very best for the upcoming year, while breaking off little pieces of the bread.
The dinner would start with a barszcz or more likely with a fantastic Christmas fish-soup and then go through all twelve dishes until the final one, the poppy cake. Only after eating this greatest of dinners, would my and I go to the other room and look for the first star in the sky. I always found this part of the evening a little silly, because it prevented me from seeing how the presents got under the tree. (The bigger ones would end up behind the curtains.) The presents were not brought by Santa, as he did not fly over eastern Europe, but by the Christ Child itself, which never abandoned the Polish people, not even in the darkest hours of Communism and cold war. (The politically correct, official version was that the presents were brought by a “star”, a symbol that worked for party members as well as church members.)
I discovered pretty early on that the presents were actually brought by my mother, who would then try to hide them as well as she could in places I knew around the house. This might have also been the reason why my mother would always get the lamest presents.
The evening would traditionally continue with a midnight mass, but we were always too stuffed to get out of the house. Sometimes the mass would be on television, while my parents were asleep and I was busy integrating my new toys into my childhood dream solutions.
Sometimes after dinner, my dog would just attack the Christmas tree, just because there was some piece of candy somewhere in the branches. Some other times I would just look out the window over the valley and look at all the candles in all the windows out in the city. And sometimes, when my grandmother was there to make sure things went well, we would walk through snow for several miles, to get to the church late and to just stand outside, freezing.
Today is the day. And I am wearing a white shirt. I will probably not eat all day and try to reply to all emails. I have plenty of work to do today, am running late for the office. I will have dinner tonight, will have twelve dishes in a Japanese Restaurant on the Upper Westside. I used to go to Veselka on Christmas eve, the Polish place on 9th street. They have barszcz and some other Christmas favorites. I think it will be nicer to have twelve little dishes though.
My parents went back to Poland for the holidays. The Christmas dinner there will be a real family event. Eight people will be at the table. And there will be a ninth plate there. Maybe for me.


that sounds lovely

Posted by: alex on December 24, 2002 02:53 PM

: )
Thank you.

Posted by: Witold on December 24, 2002 04:49 PM

this will be my first christmas without midnite mass...wweeeiirrddd feeling

Posted by: em!ly on December 24, 2002 06:30 PM

(*^# that last post...I take it back, I've changed my mind I'm going :)

Posted by: em!ly on December 24, 2002 06:36 PM

Did you go? How was it? I fell asleep before I went. It was just an exhausting day. (In really wonderful ways.)

Posted by: Witold on December 25, 2002 04:26 AM
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