Fairfield County Catholic, December 2009
Thank God for Christmas – in every sense of the phrase! The feast glows like an offshore beacon in the middle of this anxiety-ridden, sopping wet, finger-numbing, wintry landscape.
Readers who, like myself, have already passed the three-score-and-ten-year milestone will admit that any interruption to one’s routine becomes a hazard to dread.
But Christmas is different.
We are told it is a season for children, and of course that is true. Who can forget the rapture on a child’s face when he opens his stocking crammed with little presents (despite the fact that you were awakened at three in the morning to share the fun)? Or the Nativity play, where the grave little faces of the performers and their piping voices reduce hardened old cynics to tears?
Who can fail to recall the excitement of the Christmas tree and yet more presents, the laden table of traditional goodies, and dear old Aunt Nell with her hilarious presents?
However, none of this happens without a great deal of preparation and worry. Many a December issue of your favorite magazine is headlined, “Take the Crisis out of Christmas!” or “A Hundred Ways to Survive the Festive Season!”
These slogans are aimed at us; not, in fact, to help, I suspect, but to work us up to a pitch of self-doubt and collapse of confidence. Nerves tense, and the Martha in us takes over with an apron and the familiar complaint that, as usual, we must do everything alone.
We flap and bustle about, despite a voice that whispers, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret over so many things, yet few are needed.”
Well, yes, Lord, that’s all very well, but there are 20 coming for dinner and someone has to do the work. Was not the virtue of hospitality enjoined upon the followers of Christ?
And then there is shopping, shopping, shopping, and yet another list of all the things forgotten first time round. There are relatives to reconcile (“I’m not coming if you’ve asked him”) and children to persuade to dress-up/dress-down, likewise the husband, let alone deciding what to wear oneself on the Great Day.
And I’m not even going to mention The Menu . . .
In our house all that kafuffle was years ago, when a large family gathered every year for the Vigil and Christmas Day.
If your circle is Central European like mine, the Vigil on December 24th demands as much or more of the cook/ hostess as the 25th. Festivities begin with the first star, eagerly watched for by the younger ones. Everything must be ready: the table laid with snowy white cloth, a scrap of hay tucked beneath it – a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem. A place for the stranger is added to the settings. The china and napkins and candles should be white, the flowers or table decoration green with white.
All the food is cold except hot, clear beetroot soup, a cheery splash of red on this pristine table. “Little Ears” accompany the soup: a sort of small mushroom-stuffed ravioli.
Traditionally, there are twelve dishes to represent the Apostles, and everything is meatless. There ought to be carp, but it is virtually unobtainable where we live, so salmon or any other fish can be substituted. (My late mother-in-law, a master of the culinary shortcut, used to make an aspic mold of different white fish, some shrimp, and pre-cooked tiny vegetables, served with lashings of mayo. I do the same, but my children go for the salmon).
There should be several salads and a compote of seasonal fruits with jellies perhaps. Think winter in Central Europe and the sort of things that would be available there before access to supermarkets.
In Poland, the dinner begins with the ceremony of sharing the Oplatek: this is a blessed wafer, similar to the Host but square in shape and often impressed with an image of the Nativity. With luck it has been sent from relations back home.
The hostess will greet each arrival at the table with a piece of Oplatek, a kiss, and a loving Christmas message. They, in turn, will do the same with everyone else until all have shared and greeted each other. The symbolism is obvious.
If the Oplatek is missing for some reason – a postal strike failed us one year – a dash to the priest to beg for unconsecrated hosts must suffice. It is a solemn, moving custom, and sets the tone for the dinner; the hungry, those who suffer or who are far away, will be remembered.
This is neither a hurried meal nor necessarily a heavy one. There is plenty of time between that first star and Midnight Mass.
On December 25th Mom – or, possibly, Dad these days – starts all over again with turkey and all the trimmings! No wonder poor Martha looks weary.
Habits and Customs
Then suddenly the children have gone, flown off with new mates, and have little ones of their own. But what a joy to find that they haven’t forgotten the habits and customs of the parent nest!
There is the white cloth, the hay, the Oplatek, and all the old ways prepared lovingly in the unlikeliest places: a rented flat above the China Sea, a fancy apartment in Manhattan, a table spread for 35 in the middle of London. And we, who sped them on their way, may rest.
Turgenev put it beautifully in Fathers and Sons, when he described the aged parents left at home:
“We are like two funguses growing in a hollow tree: here we sit side by side not budging an inch. It is only I who will stay with you always, faithful for ever, just as you will stay with me.”
Photo by Dorothee Jung