Friday, December 25, 2015

A Traditional Polish Christmas (in the US)

Though I've been working a lot less this December than probably any other December since I started working at the age of 16, I have spent basically the entire time since Thanksgiving being sick, so updating my blogs has been difficult. (Come to think of it, I spent most of the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving being sick, too.) So, since I haven't had a lot of kitchen time (our kitchen still isn't together, by the way, and dishes continue to be washed in the bathroom), I decided to share a Christmas tradition that has become a part of my life since I started dating Greg: a Polish Christmas!

Greg's maternal family is of recent Polish descent and maintains many Polish traditions, like celebrating Christmas on the evening before. Parents, aunts, uncles, children, and grandchildren all gather for a special Christmas Eve dinner, in our case at Greg's aunt's house which used to be his grandparents' house and is the house in which his mother, aunt and uncles grew up in. 

Poland is largely Catholic and Christmas Eve is considered a fast day, which basically means no meat. Except for fish and other water creatures like shrimp. (When I was very young, I asked my Italian-by-marriage Catholic grandmother if, since fish are not meat (by Catholic standards), and meat is the flesh of animals, are they not animals? She said she wasn't sure, but she didn't think so, or something to that affect. I was then confused on this point for years.)

So our Christmas Eve dinner is "vegetarian" and always predominantly consists of shrimp cocktail, which I love and Greg hates because he doesn't like water creatures and finds them creepy (it is a testament to his love for me that he fixed my old fish tank one year as a present, and together we stocked it with little fishes, and we have visited two public aquariums together), a platter of baked macaroni and cheese, and pierogi usually filled with farmers cheese and occasionally potatoes (Greg doesn't like the potato ones either). There is also a salad and a vegetable side dish, like this year's cranberry green beans.

But the meal starts with a prayer, a toast, and oplatki, a flat "Christmas wafer" with a texture and taste very much like styrofoam. Most oplatki (plural) are white, but one is pink and is intended to be given to the household animals (farm animals in the rural old country). I read about the purpose of the pink wafer earlier this month. Greg's family had never known, minus one aunt who read about it last year. Everyone takes a piece of oplatek (singular), then goes around to everyone else at the table, wishing them a "Merry Christmas!" and breaking off a piece of each other's oplatek. Some then dip the oplatek in wine (or juice) before eating it, some eat it plain, and some quietly set it aside uneaten. Me, I'm a wine dipper.

After dinner, presents are passed out and opened, desserts like cookies, brownies, pie and chrusciki are laid out, and the evening is hectic and informal and everyone chats and jokes and teases about Santa coming. (In my own family, coffee would be served after dinner, which turns out is an Italian tradition I rather enjoy and big family dinners don't feel complete without it, despite my preference for tea over coffee. Greg made us coffee after Thanksgiving dinner with his family this year, but I declined Christmas Eve since we had hot chocolate.)

The "fast" is broken Christmas morning with a Christmas ham and/or kielbasa for breakfast, neither of which I can readily eat because I can't digest most pig products. Growing up, we always had cinnamon rolls for breakfast, followed by presents. I insist on continuing the cinnamon roll tradition with Greg because mmm... cinnamon rolls... We do not exchange presents on Christmas unless we are spending it with my family.

Today, we made another batch of those Reese's Peanut Butter Cup cookies mentioned in my last entry, then got Chinese take-out. It was a very relaxing day! And that, in itself, is a great present.

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