A very European Christmas

Christmas Eve and the children are eagerly waiting for Santa to arrive.

‘I’m going to stay up all night until he comes down the chimney!’

‘Me too.’

A box of six mince pies from Sainsbury’s and a glass of milk with a whisky chaser have been unceremoniously left on the hearth rug for Father Christmas and Rudolph. By about nine thirty the boys are both fast asleep. Good job too as the dog has eaten the pies and the cat has lapped up the milk having knocked the glass over first all over the carpet. Dad is dressing up in his Santa outfit which is too tight round the middle this year (did he just say that the dog ate all the pies? Not sure whether to believe him and somehow I don’t think the cat had the whisky though it is looking a bit guilty).

Midnight and dad is creeping around quietly placing a stocking full of small toys and sweets at the end of each bed while the big presents that Mum spent three days wrapping go under the tree on top of the already dropping needles. It’s Christmas Day and the kids are up at five to open their presents while insisting they were awake when Santa came – ‘….but I saw him!’ ‘No you can’t have you were asleep…’ etc.

Then it’s turkey and all the trimmings with Granny and Pops and Auntie Vera and Uncle Tom Cobley et al… By three o’clock the children are squabbling because there is only one set of AA batteries and every present says: ‘Batteries not included.’ No-one really wants to hear the Queen’s speech but it would be impolite to say so except Auntie Vera who has been on the sherry again.

A typical Christmas? For me not really. My father was a Polish Catholic and my mother Jewish but brought up in Romania and Austria so for my brother and I it was rather different. We celebrated Christmas Eve with the opening of presents and a buffet of cold meats, salad and salted herrings. I’m not saying this was typical of any of my inherited ‘nationalities’ but it suited us. Just so we didn’t feel left out when we went back to school, we still had a stocking each at the end of the bed and a turkey or goose for lunch the next day. All a bit of a mix-up really. Let’s call it a fusion Christmas!

‘Poland is a largely catholic country and Christmas Eve is a very important and busy day. It’s now often the most important day over Christmas – even though it’s not a holiday but Christmas Day and the 26th December are! Traditionally it was a day of fasting and abstinence and meat is not normally allowed to be eaten in any form.’ I have to say that is not something we ever practiced when I was a child. There was always meat of some kind.

‘Christmas Eve is known as Wigilia. The main Christmas meal is eaten in the evening and is called “Kolacja wigilijna” (Christmas Eve supper). It’s traditional that no food is eaten until the first star is seen in the sky! So children look at the night sky to spot the first star.’

‘On the table there are 12 dishes – they are meant to give you good luck for the next 12 months.’ The reason the meal is supposed to be meat free is to remember the animals who took care of the baby Jesus in the manger. ‘Everyone has to eat or at least try some of each dish. For Catholics the 12 dishes symbolise Jesus’s 12 disciples. Some people in central Poland say that at midnight the animals can talk.’ What a lovely thought!

By 1970 my mother and father had separated and he had married a German lady with four children of similar age to my brother and myself. We still did the Christmas Eve thing but it had now changed slightly. The family get together started at around five o’clock in the evening with a buffet supper. Once again this consisted of cold meat, herrings, stuffed eggs, salad and lots of desserts. And I mean lots. We all ate before opening the presents which had been placed under the tree. Decorated plates full of nuts, marzipans, chocolates, biscuits and fruit were prepared for each member of the family by my stepmother. These were also placed under the tree.

Once my children were born we continued the tradition but now there was a plate and presents for each little family. The tree was always the centrepiece though by the time my dad and step-mother were getting on a bit the real tree was replaced with a fake one but the decorated plates still remained.

I have been married for over thirty years and for the first ten or so we always spent Christmas Eve at my dad’s and Christmas Day at my in-laws. Once our children were a bit older everyone came to us for Christmas Day lunch but Christmas Eve remained the same. Christmas just gone we went to our son and his wife and our granddaughter Scarlett. For me Christmas has moved on yet again and so it goes round.  I can’t say I prefer any version over any other but I do hope both our sons keep a little of our childhood traditions alive and remember those decorated plates on Christmas Eve.

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