December 15, 2015

Christmas in Translation

This post was originally published on Anastasia Vitsky's blog.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Poland. It was the country my parents fled, the place whose oppressive regime and limited options drove them to immigrate to the United States before I was born. Poland was the wreck my family had swerved to avoid, the baseline used to discredit my teenage dramas (“You could have been born in Poland! Then you would have NO designer jeans!”). It was like an estranged relative, both conspicuously absent and undeniably present in my family.

Circa 1984, not in Poland

As with any complicated family relationship, the holidays make you pause and evaluate.

Christmas was on December 24. It was a day of celebration and feasting, but we were not allowed to eat meat except fish. My mother made a traditional meal including beet soup, fish with tomato and onion sauce, and pierogi stuffed with mushrooms or blueberries. The fish, store-bought cod, was a compromise; a real Polish family would have kept a carp in the bathtub for the occasion. Blueberry pierogi, heaped with sour cream and sprinkled with sugar, were the only Polish food that I enjoyed. Even dessert was geared toward an adult palate: poppy-seed cake or a walnut torte frosted with coffee cream and decorated with maraschino cherries. Thankfully, my mother allowed me to prepare a frozen pizza (cheese only) for my second dinner.

Our gifts came from jolly, red-suited American Santa, not the skinny Polish Mikołaj. Santa brought Atari games and LEGO sets, My Little Pony toys for me and Transformers for my brother. His timing was strange; he dropped gifts under our tree a few at a time throughout December, often while we were at school. By the time he undertook his grand Christmas Eve journey to visit all the other kids in America, we had unwrapped our gifts and played several rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

When I was a child, I wholeheartedly embraced my family’s unique mix of Polish and American traditions. As adolescence set in, I noticed the differences and equated different with wrong.

“We have the wrong ornaments,” I told my parents one year, and my father indulged me with a trip to the store and a tree adorned with blue glass balls and silver tinsel.

“We have the wrong music,” I told my mother, buying her a Mannheim Steamroller CD recommended by my orchestra teacher.

I played translator, introducing my parents to American Christmas.

My parents, 1996.

That brief time I thought dark hair was a good idea 

In 2001, we barely celebrated at all. My father died on Dec. 21, after a short, fierce battle with cancer that seemed cruelly juxtaposed against the merriment of the season. A giant wreath hung on the door of his hospital room. Friends brought trays of holiday cookies and fudge, the American sweets I had always wished my mother would make. My aunt, who traveled from Poland to grieve with us, made the pierogi that year because my mother couldn’t, and I didn’t know how.

Maybe it was the loss of my father, or maybe I simply grew up. I realized that my Polish heritage wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I researched the holiday traditions, learning why Poles didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve (to honor the farm animals who watched over baby Jesus) and that one should always set an extra place at the table for an unexpected guest. I learned the religious and cultural significance of opłatek, the papery wafer my family would break and share along with blessings to one another. The whole coming year might hinge on those blessings; they’re worth more than any gift under the tree. I forgave my parents for getting some details wrong with Christmas celebrations, and I saw the love behind the frozen pizzas and Mannheim Steamroller and all their attempts to meld two cultures’ traditions into a holiday their children would love.

There’s no such thing as a perfect holiday, and sometimes it isn’t until years later that you realize the things your family did wrong were actually the ones that were exactly right, and those are the things worth carrying forward for generations to come.

I now have 2 children of my own. I’m married to an American whose family makes almond roca, sings English Christmas carols, and hangs stockings by the chimney for Santa to fill on Christmas Eve. We open gifts on Christmas morning. Poland is more distant for my children, a country they might do a report on for school, the place that gives one of their grandmothers her distinctive accent.

I’m still trying to carve out the right space for Poland in my family’s life. There are no carp in our bathtub, but I bought some opłatek at the Eastern European deli in Minneapolis. I’ve learned my mother’s recipes for pierogi and walnut cake, and this year I will be making them for her and asking for honest feedback. There are some things I’ll get wrong at Christmas, but the pierogi will be perfect.

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