December comes every year, bringing the same stress to the majority of the households with Christian traditions. But I was raised in Poland, where on the first day of the last month of the year, seemingly every Polish lady turns into a war strategist. Not only that, we navigate between shelves in the shopping malls with a grace and a speed of a hunting cheetah. This “December behavioural mode” is passed on from one generation to the next, as if coded into Polish women’s DNAs. While I love this time of the year for all the decorations, lights, the spirit and its dynamics, I also shift towards this annual craze.
Before the Polish women start on the Christmas menu, there is a plan of what has to be done in the house: We start with cleaning. Try to think of a “spring cleaning” now, and make it at least 3 times more diligent. The house is turned upside down, every pillow is shaken, every vase, painting, lamp is brushed, every book is removed from the shelf and properly undusted, and every plant in the house goes through a cleaning like a minor carwash. Carpets and rugs have to be shaken and cleaned as well, and floors washed and polished. Windows are paid a special attention to. Regardless whether it rains or snows outside, the windows and the frames have to get their semi-annual spa treatment.
Now the house is ready to welcome the most important guest of the holidays, a Christmas tree. It can be a fake one, but my parents always brought in a real tree. The transport of the tree is a rather amusing process, because it never fits to the car, so the top always sticks outside of an open front window. When the tree is delivered home, it is placed in a special stand with water, located in a most visible corner of the living room, and decorated with the utmost care. For me, the smell of the tree announces the coming Christmas. I still uphold this tradition.
When the house shines, and Christmas tree is strategically placed, we seemingly make the switch into best chefs in the world, and the kitchen turns into a Hell’s Kitchen. No man is allowed to enter the premises and the race with time begins.
The tradition I was raised in calls for 12 different dishes to be served on
the Christmas Eve. We cannot serve or eat anything that contains meat on that particular day. Therefore, the fridges are full of pickled cabbage, dried mushrooms- preferably picked up in the forest in the autumn- different types of fish, vegetables, prunes, dried fruits, and more. If you listen closely, you can hear the shelves in the fridge squeaking under the weight of all the food!
I usually get up very early few days before the December 24th, and begin cutting, slicing, frying, and cooking. Even my cats are puzzled from all the action and smells coming from the kitchen. The Other Me tends to stick his head from his office asking whether he can help in anyway during my kitchen madness. There is always a “no” in response, but I appreciate him asking and checking whether I am still properly hydrated.
On the big day, the table is decorated with bigos made with mushrooms and pickled cabbage, pierogi staffed with cabbage and mushrooms, uszka with barszcz which is a clear soup made of beetroots, fish a’la Greek which ironically has nothing to do with Greeks, carp covered in white flower and fried with onion on the butter, herrings in oil with apple and onion, herrings with cream and onion and pickled cucumbers, potatoes mashed with a little bit of cream, vegetable salad with mayonnaise and mustard, and a few more dishes to reach the exact number 12 of the table. This is the proud moment of every Polish woman, and so is mine.
Following a Catholic tradition, there is no food intake on the December 24th till the evening. We can sit at the table only when the first star appears on the dark sky, and after breaking of “oplatek” (in translation a Christmas wafer that is a European Christian Christmas tradition) with every member of the family. This is an intimate moment when we share wishes with our beloved ones.
Now, all the hungry souls in the room can take a seat and start indulging in the steamy and delicious meal so carefully prepared in the course of several days. There is also an empty seat with an empty plate and cutlery ready to be used by an unexpected and hungry guest, a truly beautiful Christmas time tradition.
After the dinner, when no one can move or breath, all eyes turn to a Christmas tree where the gifts lie impatiently to be opened. Usually, the kids are told to redistribute them to the rest of slow moving members of the family. I always like to dig in to them long after the dinner, when already wearing my PJs and wool socks.
The traditions and the craze do not end there, however. We continue eating and giving gifts for the next two days. Usually we have each meal at the house of different family member, going through the same process each time. The menu is the same, each house is as clean as the previous one, and each housewife shows her pride like a peacock.
There is not much movement happening during this festive season, of course, unless you count lifting yourself to have more food on your plate or going to the kitchen to change the plate because the oil from the herrings takes over the space and bigos does not taste good with it.
And as tradition dictates, every Polish woman turns back to be herself on the December 27th, just when the Polish Christmas madness is completed, and the war strategist is hidden for the next 11 months.