Evolution of Family and Traditions: December 2007
This time of year is filled with family and tradition. No matter what your religion or background is, with the days getting shorter and colder we move indoors and into the comfort and familiarity of home and family. Who that family is and what those traditions are have probably changed and evolved a lot from the winter holidays of your youth.
As a child Christmas was an exciting and predictable time for me. Being a Polish Catholic there are more traditions and rituals for this time of year than one can keep straight. It starts each year with St. Nicholas Day (December 6). We would leave our shoes by our bedroom door hoping to find candy or a small toy in them, though my dad was known for putting charcoal in them as a warning of things to come if we were bad.
Christmas Eve is the bigger day to my polish family so we almost always spent it with them. The evening would start with the breaking and sharing of the Oplatek wafer, a thin paper like wafer similar to a communion wafer. You go around the room wishing everyone health and happiness in the new year and breaking off pieces of their wafer. We would then feast on a meatless meal filled with traditional favorites of pirogi, mushroom soup, salmon patties, herring and more. This was always a large gathering, my father has three brothers and sisters and as a child various cousins and aunts would show up. It's hard to believe that a meal with 12-15 people is downsizing, but for my family it was.
When my dad was growing up Christmas Eve involved almost 90 people as my grandpa was one of seven children and my grandma was one of five. Holiday's were spent with all the Aunts and Uncles and cousins. As everyone's families grew and their children had children we added a second celebration since many people wanted to spend Christmas Eve with their smaller more immediate families. I'm not sure when it started, but grandpa started having a holiday open house, usually the weekend between Christmas and New Years. As a kid, this was a like a bonus Christmas. This party had everything, there was family (usually 100+ people), food (more pirogi!), games and polish carols around the organ.
The games where by far my favorite tradition, every year we would play a huge White Elephant game. Everyone would bring gifts, some nice, some silly, some junk, and it would be the biggest pile of presents I had ever seen! The game would last most of the night with everyone trying for what would look like a bottle of wine and end up being prune juice, or the biggest box which would contain the smallest little gift. One year a cousin who was a photographer brought back this huge tribal mask from Africa. The next year it showed up again, it had apparently broken and was back in dozens of smaller pieces, that mask (or pieces of it) were in the game for years. Being the youngest children of all the cousins my sisters and I were always the ones charged with running around and collecting the dice. I remember many evenings collapsing in the car exhausted or falling asleep on a pile of coats.
Christmas is very different now, and not just because kids are involved. Families are smaller and many of us live farther away. My dad grew up on the same block with many of his cousins. I live an hour away from my mother in law and 30 minutes from my parents. Cousins are strewn from New York to Hawaii. There is also the addition of my husband and his family and his traditions. You wouldn't think they would be so different or so hard to blend, Polish Catholic vs. German Lutheran. Surprisingly it was. My husband comes from a smaller family and was always a little overwhelmed at the size (and volume) of my Polish family. I was always a little shy at his small and close knit gatherings. His mom always hosted Christmas Eve, his aunt (who lived down the street) Christmas Day. When we were first married we used to go to everyone's house each day. That stopped when I was pregnant the first time, I knew it would be no fun to cart a child around in a car all day. So we alternate holidays, this year Christmas Eve is with my family, Christmas Day is with his. It means we sometimes miss family, I won't see my mom's family this year because they always do Christmas Day, last year I didn't see my dad's family. That's how family evolves, growing and shrinking as children grow up and move on.
The traditions are changing too, we are starting to make our own and change or alter our families. One of our traditions grew from the idea that family isn't always who you are related too. I am very close to three girlfriends I lived with in college. Before we had husbands and kids we always got together over our holiday break to exchange gifts. This naturally evolved into a annual Christmas tradition that now involves our husbands and six kids and rotates between several Midwest cities.
As my family grows and changes so will our holiday traditions. I often wonder if my grandmother ever thought about what traditions she would pass on to her kids. I'm sure she didn't, being a second generation Polish immigrant and still speaking the language and living so close to her family, it was just known what you would do. But as our families grow and spread out I look for little things to add to our celebration and the things from my childhood that I can recreate. I look forward to the day when we can host the traditional Christmas Eve celebration, introducing that to my husbands family and putting our own spin on tradition. I have it all planned out, a little new a little old. we pick up things as we go and some naturally evolve and that what makes this time of year so special, it's familiar, yet new and exciting.
Happy Holiday everyone! May your family have a safe and festive season and a happy and healthy new year!