We just came back from a 5 days Christmas holidays in Warsaw. It consisted mainly of eating divine food, doing lots of sweet, sweet nothing and being lovingly cared for by my family. I got tons of rest that I desperately needed. I read books, and not at all the parenting type. I played with the children. I spoke with my family. Life was great. But it wasn’t exactly a traditional Christmas, really.
In this post, I wanted to tell you how my family celebrates Christmas because I think it might help many expats understand that while they may not exactly follow their country’s traditions, they can decide to make something new and unique. But first, let me tell you about a traditional Polish Christmas.
It is full of symbolism, and anticipation, and oh yes, food. Good food. The big day is already the 24th of December. Dinner starts early that day, usually when somebody notices the first star in the sky- to commemorate the Star of Bethlehem. Then, there might be prayer (or not), and we share the Holy Wafer. You can read about this tradition here.
You won’t find any meat on the table, as Christmas Eve is supposedly a fasting day. However to Polish people, this means “no meat”, and not “eat less”. In fact, the table should be full with food- fish, grains, sweets and salads, all counting up to 12 dishes- for the 12 apostles. There is more, of course but if you want to find out more about Christmas in Poland, you can find more information here.
Now, this is all great when you have a big family with at least three generations getting together for Christmas. My family has always been small. Instead of trying to make all the 12 dishes, we stick to the ones everybody loves. And while my father is the chef in my home, Christmas is the time for my mother to shine. She makes borscht, delicious beetroot soup with “uszka” – tiny little dumplings filled with wild mushrooms and onions. My brother and I help her with the production, and this year, Klara did, too! A big tradition in our family is my father complaining about us always making not enough uszka- but hey, we already make like 150 of them. This year, we outdid ourselves, making as many as 170! There is more, food like fish with vegetables, but the borscht really is the highlight of the evening and after that, everybody is so full that they won’t have room for more food.
Another thing my mother makes is the fruitcake, which is not at all a Polish tradition. When my mother was in the States, she bought Julia Child’s cookbook, and fruitcake was one of the things she found herself making every year. I love this cake. The next day, or two days after that, she makes blini,fluffy pancake-y wonders made with buckwheat flour- they’re not a Polish tradition, either, instead they are popular in the Ukraine, Belarus or Russia (my mom has this recipe from her Ukrainian mother-in-law).
While our Christmas may not be so consistent with the Polish traditions, it has become our tradition. My parents have managed to keep it simple for Christmas, and to create a family culture, all at the same time. Maybe this approach may help many expats figure out how to best celebrate Christmas. I think that while it is important to remember one’s own roots, it is also a good idea to be flexible, practical and open to new ideas.