__I find that in regard to Christmas celebrations, there are two types of people: Those that primarily celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve and those that primarily celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day. Until modern DNA testing can prove otherwise, all evidence points to my family being 100% Polish and therefore, we were, by some obscure Polish-Catholic law, definitely in the Christmas Eve celebration group.
____When I was growing up our family followed the traditional Polish-Catholic Christmas Eve dinner known as Wigilia. If you are Polish or know the Polish language this is generally pronounced V ah-ghee-lee-ah. Some Poles, our family among them, pronounce this dinner tradition Vah-lee-ah. However, a few Polish language snobs that Abby knows from her University (I’m looking at you Piotr and Milosz) have recently informed me that those of us that use the latter pronunciation are descended from Polish hillbillies (the Deliverance kind) and are saying it wrong.
____Depending on a family’s traditions, what is known as Wigilia can be a complicated all-day affair or it can be just the elaborate dinner that begins when a child in the family sees the first star in the night sky. In our family, Wigilia officially started when my mother’s very nervous and anxiety ridden Aunt Millie, finally spotted, not a star in the sky, but my Aunt Julia and Uncle Tommy’s station wagon dragging ass down 47th Street loaded with a half dozen kids, fifty presents and a few boxes of Maurice Lenell Cookies.
____Our Wigilia dinner always began with the breaking of the Oplatki, which is an extremely thin wafer made with flour and water and is about the size of a greeting card.
____Around Thanksgiving you would start to see them in packets of five at all the corner grocery stores that were usually operated by the first-generation Polish immigrants currently living in our neighborhood. On Saturdays and Sundays these wafers would be blessed at church services throughout the month of December and then kept in a safe place at home until Christmas Eve.
____Although Oplatki were usually a creamy white, some packets contained a pink wafer that was to be given to family pets when you wished them a Merry Christmas on Christmas Eve. It is said that animals are included in this ritual to honor the animals that were present in the stable when Jesus was born.
____Every year, after everyone had arrived and settled in around the long train of folding tables that had been set up in my great-grandmother’s basement apartment, she would dramatically emerge from the kitchen area and wipe her hands on her Christmas Poinsettia apron while waiting for silence. When everyone quieted down and gave her their full attention, she would spend a few moments taking in the sight of three younger generations of her family seated around the holiday table and a smile would appear so broad that her eyes could barely be seen in all the wrinkles and crinkles of her face.
____This was her holiday. Her family. Her reward for a very hard life. She was the only one of her family to make it to America before the World Wars decimated Europe, and although she had been widowed twice and had lost her youngest son in WWII, she herself had lived long enough to see the descendants of her ancestors gathered around her Wigilia table every Christmas Eve.
____After my great-grandmother had finished admiring her family, she held her hands out to her eldest daughter and my Aunt Millie would present her with one of the blessed Oplatki wafers and upon taking it she would kiss my great-aunt and in Polish wish her a Merry Christmas. Aunt Millie would return the greeting and break off a tiny piece of the wafer and eat it.
____My great-grandmother, also known as Busia, would then walk around the table and repeat this greeting and the symbolic breaking of the “bread” with every member of the family, even the babies, whose mothers would place just a crumb of the wafer on their tongues.
____In our family, everyone had to touch this one Oplatki held by my great-grandmother and break off a small piece to eat as this symbolized family unity. When she had wished the last person at the table a Merry Christmas, she would bow her head and eat whatever was left of the wafer.
____When this ceremony was completed, Busia would back away from the table, smile and give everyone a hand gesture that was a mixture of “thank you, thank you” and “wait, wait” and then she would disappear into the kitchen. It was at this time that family members reminded new spouses or young children that the meal was served slowly, so that each course could be enjoyed on its own
before the next course was passed around the table. We also reminded them that no meat (only fish) would be served because we were “fasting” during the hours that the Virgin Mary would have been in labor with Jesus.
____The first course out of the kitchen was always a cold, foul dish of pickled herring with onions and other things that I could never identify because my eyes were watering so badly from the stench. My father always secretly ate my share of this disgusting chum and I loved him for his understanding regarding this matter. The second dish out of the kitchen was sauerkraut, followed by boiled potatoes, a huge bowl of vegetables, an assortment of meatless pierogis like potato, sauerkraut, plum or cheese and then, finally, the star of the meal was served: delicious deep-fried perch.
____After the last piece of perch was gone from the platters, Busia would present homemade blueberry pies and warm, assorted fruit and cheese blintzes sprinkled with powdered sugar. All of this was carried to the table by her first great-grandchild, my cousin Angela, who by the way, looked just like Patty McCormick in THE BAD SEED.
____After dinner, everyone had to help with the dishes and no one was allowed to even ask about gifts until every dish was washed and put away. During “dishes” one pre- selected member of our family would be quietly kidnapped by Aunt Millie to dress up as Santa Claus in the family Santa outfit that she kept upstairs in the bedroom closet of her first-floor apartment.
____After giving that year’s “Santa” final instructions regarding stomping about her apartment to simulate Santa’s arrival, properly ringing the red leather “harness” of sleigh bells and most importantly when he (or she) should yell, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” Aunt Millie would return to the basement absolutely vibrating with excitement over this impending Santa visit. Within a minute or two of her return, she would lean toward the back-porch door and with her hand cupped behind her ear she would yell out, “Oh! Oh! Could there be another guest coming? Who do you think it is? Could it be the man dressed in red? Does he have a beard? Do you hear bells ringing? Who’s ringing those bells?”
____Because my Aunt Millie had never been married and was presumed to be a virgin, my father found her choice of words absolutely hilarious and every year he could barely contain his schoolboy laughter. The year Aunt Millie accidently asked who was ringing “her” bells, my father lost it and laughed until tears dripped off his chin. My mom and her sisters punished his childishness by making him “Santa” three years in a row. The third year, he paid me a quarter to run straight to him and yell, “Daddy!” while flinging myself into his arms. It worked... all my cousins were traumatized by our performance and my dad didn’t have to play Santa for a fourth year.
____Yeah, I got yelled at, but I did have twenty-five cents that I didn’t have when the night started, so for me, it all worked out okay.
____Santa always had a Santa Bag filled with small but beautifully wrapped presents that were distributed to each family member. No one was left out and there were always presents for each family’s pets...even if the family only had goldfish or hamsters. After the presents were given out, Santa would turn to my Aunt Millie’s red and white, life size, cardboard fireplace and take down the red net stockings that were filled with candy and give one to each child while wishing them a Merry Christmas. But before we could open the stocking and eat the candy, we had to pose on Santa’s lap so pictures could be taken.
____Every year during the “Santa Pictures” portion of the evening, my Auntie Rae would try to sit on Santa’s lap and give him a dance. Something my mother said she used to be quite good at before she married Uncle Stan, Busia’s almost life-long bachelor son.
____The only time I ever saw my Busia be anything other than a benign little old lady was the Christmas Eve she told Uncle Stan that it looked like his hair was growing back on the top of his head and inquired if he was using special medication. Uncle Stan looked at his mother and deadpanned, “No medication Ma, Rae-Rae just pisses on my head every night after we make love...”
____He might’ve gone on to elaborate further but my Busia lunged at him with an old wooden spoon while screaming lots of obscenities in Polish and Russian and then had to be held back by several of her other children who, based upon their quick and effective reactions, were quite experienced in rescuing Stan from their mother.
____Later that night, I remember all of us kids lined up in a row in front of our mothers to ask some questions about this piss business while we solemnly and methodically ate our Christmas Stocking Candy...
____“If someone pissed on us, would we grow?”
____“What does piss mean?”
____“Wait...what is piss?”
____“Why would you go pee-pee on someone’s head?”
____“What does “make love” mean?”
____“Do you only do it at night?”
____“Why do you only do it at night?”
____“Why do you only do it in the dark?”
____“What if you can’t see what you’re doing?”
____“Can we do it tonight after you read us a story?”
____“Mama? Are you okay? Why are you choking?”
____“Mama? Can we sleep in your bed tonight?”
____“Mama, we’re scared.”
____The Wigilia portion of Christmas Eve with Busia usually ended with everyone getting two Christmas Card/Money Holders, one from her and one from Aunt Millie. Each one had ten dollars inside, but Benny and I never got to spend this money as it went directly to our parents. I’m pretty sure our cousins never got theirs either.
____The handing out of these cards was our cue that Busia was tired, her apartment was clean again, and we should all go upstairs to my grandmother’s apartment to continue our festivities.
____The last half of our Christmas Eve celebration took place in my grandmother’s second floor apartment. For me, this was the best part of Christmas Eve because back then my family didn’t believe in grab bag Christmases and they insisted on everyone buying a gift for each person in the family. This resulted in a pile of gifts that stretched from the tree by the front window all the way back to the living room doorway, which was at least twenty-five feet away. The chaos and excitement of this yearly event has always been one of my favorite childhood memories.
____Every year I remember getting a new robe, pajamas and slippers from my grandmother, books from my Uncle Paulie and Avon soaps, lip balm and bath products from my Auntie Barbara, who was an Avon Lady on weekends. Aunt Julia bought us toys and games, Aunt Millie always gave us purses and wallets and funny socks.
____I could go on and on. It was a fabulous time and all of us kids loved every present we were given...except for the year that Angela bought me a bra and I burst into tears when I realized what it was. I had started wearing bras only a few months earlier and being somewhat of a tomboy I was still trying to pretend that this horrible tragedy had not befallen me, so of course I was mortified when I opened Angela’s gift in front of the whole family.
____The following year I made Angela a pretty brown paper bag to put over her unfortunate face, but my mother wouldn’t let me put it in a box and wrap it. There were times when my mother was overly concerned about the feelings of others and therefore no fun at all.
____After the last present was opened, our parents would descend upon the wreckage, gathering up all the gifts and carefully placing them in large black garbage bags labeled with the name of the family that was taking them home. The ribbons and wrapping paper were left on the floor for the younger kids to play in while the adults went into the kitchen to prepare cookies and hot chocolate for everyone.
____Cookies, coffee and mugs of hot chocolate with whip cream and a candy cane as a stirrer were consumed while watching a little family play that was put on every year like clockwork. It was called, The Christmas Runs.
____Uncle Tommy, like most everyone else in the family, always wanted something sweet with his after-dinner coffee and because he wouldn’t eat anything that my Auntie Barbara baked since he got the “runs” from her Santa cookies in 1965 (and had shit himself on the way home), he always insisted on bringing his own boxed (and sterile) Maurice Lenell cookies when he knew his kid sister-in-law would be baking.
____Not one to ever let things go, year after year Uncle Tommy would make a big show out of perusing his sister- in-law’s carefully baked Christmas offerings, go to choose one and at the last minute he would make a face, pull his hand back and yell, “Julia! Did you bring those ass-wipes like I asked you to?”
____My Aunt Julia would appear at his side with a box of his cookies, pinch him and warn him to behave. Uncle Tommy would turn to us kids and hand out cookies from his sterile stash and while we gathered around him, he would tell us the “Christmas Eve Shit Story From Long Ago.”
____We would roar with laughter at the thought of Uncle Tommy pooping his pants and when he laughed with us, Auntie Barbara would come up behind him and try to shove some of her homemade cookies into his mouth. He of course would feign immediate stomach pains and lie on the floor groaning.
____As soon as this little performance was over, Uncle Tommy and Aunt Julia started gathering up their children and packing the car for their ten-minute ride home. Some of us would gather around Aunt Julia’s relatively massive family and heartily sing the song that goes, “Every party has a pooper, that’s why we invited you...PARTY POOPER! PARTY POOPER!”
____This would always end with Aunt Julia glaring at her sisters and reciting her yearly rant about how much work it was to have SIX kids and when they each produced SIX kids then they would understand and wouldn’t be such assholes to her. For good measure, Angela would stand behind her mother and stick her tongue out at me and then I would politely say, “No thank you, I use toilet paper.”
____After the party poopers were out of the house and their car had pulled away, the adult-ish part of Christmas Eve at Gram’s would begin...
____My Dad and Uncle Paulie would go into the living room with a few beers and some clear garbage bags and clean up all the mess, making sure no gifts or parts of gifts would be mistakenly thrown out.
____The women gathered around my grandmother’s kitchen table and pulled out a deck of cards and some change from their purses. Very soon my Aunt Millie would tiptoe up the stairs with a bottle of brandy and a bunch of tiny glasses for the ladies to sip the liquor from.
____As soon as Auntie Millie was a little tipsy, I would ask her if I could see her “Jesus Book” and totally preoccupied with the card game, she would give Benny and me permission to go into her apartment and retrieve this infamous book so we could take our yearly look at it.
____The “Jesus Book” was a massive, red leather book with gold lettering so impressive and commanding that I can still see the letters in my mind but do not really recall exactly what they spelled. What I do remember is what the inside of the book showed: A very, very graphic and gruesome account of The Crucifixion presented in glossy Technicolor.
____I never understood why this book was displayed under Aunt Millie’s Christmas Tree, a time of year in which we celebrated Christ’s birth, not his death. Even back then I thought that this timing was off and that the book should have been displayed in a pot of Easter Lilies in the spring when daylight was abundant and the horrific nightmares that the book spawned would be hours away.
____In order to not be caught looking at this by our parents, Benny and I would crawl under Gram’s kitchen table where I studied this book as if I were getting ready to take the MCAT’s, all the while making Benny look at each and every gruesome injury that had been inflicted upon the actor/model playing Jesus. The poor kid usually caught a case of the “sissies” and had to leave and crawl under our Dad’s arm while he sat in the living room drinking with Uncle Paulie.
____One year, my Mom’s cousin Laura, one of those “Oops!” babies that are conceived because the mom is thought to be too old to get pregnant so birth control was not used, crawled under the table with Benny and me to take a look at why we were so quiet.
____Laura was young enough to get under the table and yet her proper generational place gave her enough clout to snatch the book out of my hands and put it back under Aunt Millie’s Christmas tree.
____(We never saw that book again after the year that Laura took it from us. This was okay though because the following year Laura would take Benny and me to the Brighton Theater to see “Night of the Living Dead” and I was formally introduced to modern horror movies, which ended up being way better than the “Jesus Book.”)
____Eventually, there would come a point, late into the evening, when Benny and I would get bored and we would create our own entertainment. As a result of our efforts, every year our Christmas Eve celebrations would end like this...
____When the women were all giggly and threatening to pee their pants around the poker table and I sensed that the time was right, I would send Benny to the bathroom to let Jean-Claude out.
____Jean-Claude was my grandmother’s elderly, white miniature poodle and he was as mean as fuck. Jean- Claude was also very possessive, half blind and off his friggin’ doggie rocker. He liked to lick my grandmother’s toes and for some reason, which I don’t like to think about, she would let him. The minute the bathroom door opened, Jean-Claude would make a beeline for Gram’s toes and go to town with the licking.
____The problem was that every movement under the table caused the senile dog to think someone was horning in on his prize treat of gnarled old lady toes and he would bark hysterically, spin in circles and growl, causing everyone to freeze in terror, afraid to move their feet under the table for fear they would lose a part of a foot. Considering that half the family was diabetic, this was a very real concern.
____These women were terrified of the dog and their fear made them truly helpless in this situation. It didn’t take long for all of them to begin screaming, and for Jean- Claude to ramp up his growling and begin dive-bombing everyone’s feet.
____My Dad and Uncle Paulie, previously passed out on the living room sofas, would stagger, half-awake, into the kitchen expecting a marauding gang of hippies to be attacking their womenfolk but they never saw anything of the sort, not even a bong or a headband made of flowers.
____Dumbfounded, the two of them would just stare at the women and my mother, tears streaming down her face, would whisper, “Jean-Claude” and carefully point under the table. This would commence the Benny Hill portion of the evening with my Uncle and my Dad chasing Jean-Claude around the apartment while my brother and I stood on step stools yelling encouragement and instructions.
____During all of this chaos, the women just plain screamed their heads off while they sat with their asses glued to their chairs and their feet stuck straight out in front of them like the original Barbie Dolls with the legs that didn’t bend.
____Once Jean-Claude was captured, the evening was considered over, and everyone agreed that we should wrap it up. After all, the entire family was meeting again in about twelve hours for Busia’s Christmas Day Lunch, which always began with her homemade chicken noodle soup.