Family & Friends

Comfort and Joy: The Magic of an Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve

larysa-image-1 A typical Christmas in the Carpathian mountains, all family members celebrating in their best traditional costumes.

The main course of the evening was cold fish in aspic.  The fish— carp—had been cooked and deboned, sliced into gorgeous one-inch “steaks,” and laid out on platters.  The stock was cooked down until it would jell and poured over the fish.  This is where the real magic occurred.  Each platter was decorated as though the fish were still swimming. A parsley leaf here, a bit of carrot there.  The fish head had a bit of carrot in its mouth ready to swallow.  I can still taste it.  The fish was put out on the porch to cool.

Next the pierogies—12 dozen!!  We made two kinds—potato and cheese and sauerkraut. To make 12 dozen pierogi, Mom organized a factory-line operation.  She rolled out the dough, my older sister cut the circles, and we all filled the circle and crimped it closed.  I was a big girl now and got to try.  The key was to fill it just enough and to make sure there were no air pockets, or else the pierogi would open when being cooked.  It was hard to do with little hands, but Mom showed me over and over and over.  I remember both Mom and I glowing with pride.

In the living room, my dad was putting up the Christmas tree with my older brother.  The tradition was much the same as the tradition in my dad’s boyhood days.  The tree got brought home on Christmas Eve, the record player was playing Ukrainian Christmas carols, and everyone was getting a turn at hanging an ornament.  The tree stayed up until New Year’s Eve.  My dad also had tricks up his sleeve.  A few days before Christmas he would come in to New York City and go to the German neighborhood on the Upper East Side in the eighties.  There, at Ottomanelli’s, he would buy beautiful chocolates in the shape of pinecones and stars.  They had a string, and we would hang them in between the glass ornaments and the rows of lights.  All the time there would be singing.  My brother had quite a reputation for managing to squirrel away a few pieces of chocolate in his pocket for us to have later.  As if my parents didn’t know.

As Christmas Eve Day progressed, we children got more and more excited and anxious.  We needed to go outside and collect the straw to put under the table for the manger.  I am not sure to this day what my parents, or the neighbors, for that matter, thought when three kids ran out to the fields and cut down tall stalks of grass, but they went along with it.  And it was snowing to boot.  Heaven!!

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At 5 p.m. my grandparents arrived, as did our “adopted” grandparents, who had no children of their own.  They helped set the table and get us kids washed up and dressed so that we would be ready to eat at the sighting of the first star.  The doors were closed between the dining and living rooms. The meal started with a blessing of the family.  One slice of bread, spread with honey, was cut into small slivers and passed around by the “man of the house”—the “hospodar”—wishing each person a personal wish, which ended with the eating of the bread and honey.  A family prayer, a carol, and we were finally ready to eat. What a feast.  Our meal finished with kutia, a dish made from cooked wheat, nuts, poppyseeds, and honey.  The legend dictates that the grandfather of the house take the first spoonful and throw it onto the ceiling.  Then everyone would count how many poppyseeds stuck to the ceiling.  This would represent the bounty for the coming year.  We squealed with delight when my grandfather took the spoon of kutia and flung it into the air.  I am sure that my dad didn’t think Grandfather would do it, but fling he did.  It was to be a very good year!

After dinner it was off to midnight mass—a sung mass, which meant that it would go on for three hours with all the pageantry that Christmas called for: the priest in splendid red and white robes with incense, all the alter boys following behind, my dad leading the choir. I didn’t remember much of it; I fell asleep on the pew.  Midnight is very late for a little one to be up.  I was asleep until we got home.  And then, as though by magic, we came into the house to find the tree lit up and little gifts of fruit and sweets under the tree.  One, just one, please!  Another Christmas carol as we stuffed our faces, and off to bed.

A magical, magical night!

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