Thursday, December 24, 2009

Advent Calendar - That Certain Christmas Eve

[Note: This post originally ran during the first Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories in December, 2007

How do I begin a story that took place 45 years ago and involves kitchen cabinets, Wigilia, Midnight Mass, a game of poker, a generator, a maternity ward and a Christmas stocking? The best way, I guess, is to go exactly in that order of all those mysterious events and items.

My mother was always an active woman, from my memories, and from what relatives have told me. Being the sixth of 12 children she was the doer, the fixer, the healer. So it is not surprise to hear that while she was nine months pregnant, she thought nothing of climbing up and down a step-ladder to clean kitchen cabinets. I guess there was nothing more pressing on that day than to tidy up the place a bit, especially in places that no one else could see.

During this first of two pregnancies, Mom had a relatively easy time of it, barring the fact that she always had to go to the bathroom. With a baby pressing against various other body parts, she figured that urge to always "go" was normal for some women, and her doctor had confirmed that. So when her water broke during that cleaning mission, luckily she was in the bathroom. However, she didn't realize that the birthing process had just started. She thought that once again, she had to "go" and just did.

And so off to parties and gatherings my parents went. One tradition was to spend Christmas Eve with my future god-parents Mike and Elsie Washousky celebrating Wigilia but it was called "Holy Supper" by most of us. Uncle Mike grew up in a Polish household in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania where he had met his future wife Elsie Slaby who was of Slovak descent. Our Wigilia was a blend of both the Polish and Slovak Christmas traditions, leaning more towards his wife's family's traditions of the past.

Holy Supper was held that night in the same way it had been since the early 1950s when the settled in Liberty, New York and would still be up until 1990 when Aunt Elsie had passed away. I remember that the day started with Uncle Mike in the kitchen cooking his family's version of the traditional dishes: unleavened bread, pea soup, sauerkraut soup, mushroom soup, bobalki, fish and potatoes, pierogie, cabbage, beets, and finally, stewed prunes.

Once the first star in the sky appeared, it was time to start. A procession would be made into the living room where a table for 12 to 15 people was set, lit only by candles. Straw was under the table to signify the birth of the baby Jesus. We would begin with the oplatki, a special wafer similar to Roman Catholic communion wafers but very large and imprinted with a scene of the Nativity. My aunt ordered them special delivery from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

We would dip the wafer in bowls of honey scattered around the table and Uncle Mike would begin the Remembering. He'd speak of how his parents kept Wigilia each year and work through a remembrance of the entire family past and present. Small glasses of wine were served and we'd laugh, cry and remember.

The soups would come next. My favorite part were the bobalki. These were not the traditional sweet tiny dough "worms" covered with preserves and butter, served like a Christmas pudding. These were tiny "fingers" of dough fried in oil and onions. Placed in a bowl on the table, they were meant to serve as dumplings for the various soups. For most of us, it helped the sauerkraut soup go down easier.

Once dinner was done, the candles were blown out, and the women began the cleanup. All night long, my god-parents would tell me and my brother and in later years their grandchildren to behave otherwise Santa Claus would not come that night. We always asked how he would arrive - and Uncle Mike stated that you could first hear the sound of sleigh bells.

So off to the upstairs bedrooms the children would go to get dressed for bed. Sleepy and struggling to get into their Dr. Denton's, they all had visions of sugarplums and what Santa would bring them, for they were certain they had been good all year long, not just that night. Meanwhile, the parents were downstairs bringing gift upon gift up from the basement where they had been secreted out of the site of prying young eyes.

Once the presents were all arranged around the tree, my aunt would be at the bottom of the stairs and begin shaking a large belt of sleigh bells. One of the men would be outside either on the roof making noise or if it was too dangerous due to snow, throwing large pieces of wood up there to make noise. Women would be downstairs, in a loud voice, saying "Is that Santa? I think I see him! I know I can hear his sleigh bells!" At that moment several small children would begin screaming, arms flailing, feet stomping as they tried to catch a glimpse of the man in red. They all seemed to tumble down the stairs in one large ball of energy only to be disappointed, once again, at not seeing St. Nick. But he had left them gifts which would be feverishly opened while parents stood with their Polaroids and Instamatics and flash cubes remembering when their own family pulled the same stunt at their Wigilias of past.

My mother kept this tradition that night with people who were good friends, and considered family. The main topic of conversation was her pregnancy and when the baby was due - which was determined to be right around New Year's Day. Someone said they hoped it was before the New Year so that the baby would also be daddy's little tax deduction as well as mommy's little bundle. My Aunt Elsie, being a registered nurse at the local hospital, made a prediction that the child would be born the next day, on Christmas. "Have some more wine!" everyone said with a laugh.

By this time it was 11:00 pm which meant it was time to head down to church for Midnight Mass. If you wanted to get a good seat and to be able to sing Christmas carols before the service, you had to be there by 11:30 pm. Only stragglers and out-of-town visitors would end up in the last pews or standing in the back or along the aisles.

Mom sat through Mass which ended about 1:30 a.m. And not yet having had a full day, she went back to my godparents' house for another tradition: the annual Christmas poker game. Starting about 2:00 a.m., there would be a large group gathered around the same table where Wiglia had been held only hours earlier. Of course the straw had been removed from under the table and now it was filled with shot glasses, whiskey, chips and cards. A transition from the sacred to the profane.

It was during one hand of cards, that my mother felt that something wasn't right. Her labor had begun - it was sudden and unexpected. My aunt, the nurse, then informed my mother that her water had probably broken earlier in the day when she thought it was time to "go." Now it really was time to "go!"

Aunt Elsie called up the hospital and let them know to start the generator in the maternity ward. Seriously. That's how small a town I had. There were not many births, perhaps one or two every two weeks. So a generator was kept to provide extra power and heat in this small wing off of a small hospital in a very small town in upstate New York.

Mom said it was colder than a well-digger's *ss in that room - at least that was the colorful term she always used. It was 4:00 a.m. by time she and the rest of the broken up poker game had arrived. A different game was underway, and Mom didn't know if they next card she received would be a Jack or a Queen, a boy or a girl.

So at 6:50 a.m. that cold Christmas morning, surrounded by friends who had become family, I was born. My first appearance would be in a large red and white striped Christmas stocking which I would later use growing up as my stocking for Santa to fill.

That day it was filled with a child my mother always wanted, wasn't quite expecting so soon, and would always love.

Although she can no longer tell that same story as she told it to me, as with so many memories, I now do the telling. Thanks Mom.

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee