I thought it might be fun to teach Stretch about my heritage, so this past Sunday we took him to an old farmhouse that was set up to demonstrate a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner as it would have been celebrated during the Depression years.
Some of the foods of the traditional Christmas Eve dinner were familiar to me from my own childhood growing up in the 1960s. There was always a variety of fish served because meat was not allowed on this day.
One dish we kids avoided was the smoked eel. The ones we had were never cut up and served in small dishes like this, they were whole eels that came wrapped in wax paper. My parents and my Uncle Joe and Aunt Agnes would sit at the kitchen table and just slice pieces of this fish and eat it as an appetizer. It always amazed me to see my mother doing this because she had a deathly fear of snakes. This fish looked to me exactly like a snake and yet there she would sit happily munching on it. Proof positive for a kid that grown-ups are weird!
An appetizer I did enjoy was the Sledzi—or herring in cream sauce. Even though my parents were both American-born, my mother could speak Polish fluently and always called certain things by their Polish name. I suspect this was a sneaky way of teaching me some of the language without my realizing it. So until I was old enough to read I didn’t know that sledzi had another name called herring.
The dinner table for the main course was set over a tablecloth with straw underneath it to symbolize the straw from the manger. An extra place was always set for the Christ Child. At the historic farmhouse we were told the dishes came from the giveaways that movie theaters used to do in the 1930s and 1940s. Glasses were prizes included in boxes of detergent. The dishes in my house came from the sets the A&P sold at a discount with a minimum purchase. Each week they would feature a different piece of china so you had to keep shopping there for a while in order to complete a set.
Another tradition was that you couldn’t eat dinner until the first star shone in the East, a symbol of the Christ Child's birth. I once asked my mother what they did on a rainy Christmas Eve but she didn’t remember.
After dinner, the family shared the Oplatek. These were blessed wafers similar to the wafers given out at Communion. Each person would take a wafer and go around to the other family members. You would break a piece of the wafer the other person held, swallow it, and then you would hug and kiss that person, forgiving them for any quarrels or bitterness between you during the year.
I was surprised to see a combination of white and pink wafers on this plate; I had never seen pink oplatek. When I asked the guide at the house what they were, she told me that the pink wafers were fed to the farm animals to thank them for the nourishment they provided the family throughout the year. Are any of my country cousins familiar with this tradition?
Stretch said he very much enjoyed the tour and hearing about my family heritage, although he wasn’t too keen on trying the eel or herring dishes. However, he was more than willing to chomp into a piece of the babka he was offered!