White powdery snow covers the front sidewalk in the city that never sleeps as the last bell of the year rings. The warm sofa heated by the fireplace invites children as they cuddle under blanket holding a cup of fresh hot cocoa. My dad drives to upstate New York to bring back hay that we can lay under the white wafer we call oplatek the following day. The signs of Christmas arise…
The sun rises on the day of December 24th. I wake up and know that although it is a day with one of the longest nights of the year it is a day of warmth, family, and honor. December 24th in my home is colored by Polish traditions as these questions arise throughout the day:
“Have you bought the carp?”
“Is the borscht ready?”
“Only the kids may eat.”
“Is the first star visible?”
“Is the bible on the table?”
“Are we ready to begin?”
The table in my house is covered with a white table cloth of an elaborate design. On top of this table dishes are laid, including one extra for an uninvited guest as a symbol for the fact that there was no place for Mary and St. Joseph the night of Jesus’ birth. In the middle of the dinner table there is hay under white wafers. The table is covered with twelve food dishes symbolizing the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. As the family gathers around the table my grandfather opens the bible unto the chapter of Saint Luke which speaks of Jesus’ birth. Prayer follows my grandfathers reading. After we pray we each take a white wafer which symbolizes forgiveness, friendship, and love. The white wafer is also a reminder to people to be sharable and good like bread. As we go up to each other and state our wishes for the following year we remember what it means to be Polish. My family then sits down and begins supper with the traditional red borscht. We must remember to taste a bit of everything even if we do not like it because only tasting everything will bring luck the following year. We eat in silence, thinking about the real meaning of Christmas, and after we are done eating we get ready to go to church for the traditional Christmas Eve mass…
This year was the first year in my life I did not spend December 24th with my family. I found myself in another culture, in another country for this special day. It was most likely the first day in Brazil which I had difficulty with homesickness but nevertheless I was able to blend certain Brazilian traditions with my traditions at home. I also kept an open mind of gratitude for my host family which has been treating me very well.
As a fellow who works with the production of organic cookies I thought I would feel the Christmas spirit this Christmas more than any other Christmas. My host family and I began watching Christmas movies such as the Polar Express and Arthur’s Christmas in mid October as we prepared designs for this year’s Christmas cookies. For the entire month ofNovemberand December we made Christmas cookies every day. I cut out many Santas, snowmen, and snowflakes from white chocolate but I did not feel Christmas. I experienced hot temperatures which reminded me of the end of school and summer, a stark difference to the near freezing temperatures that remind New Yorkers it is December. There were lights but there were many more lights and decorations back home in New York City. There were almost no Christmas carols on the radio and my family listened to very few Christmas carols as Malta’s “Diz pra mim” blasted through the radio.
On the morning of December 24th I woke up and could not realize it was the special day I cried for when I was a little kid. I knew I could not drink water or eat until sunset because of the Polish tradition. The only difference was that in New York City the sun sets three hours before the sun in Santa Catarina and it is cold so there is a less likelihood of dehydration, yet I was strong. I was determined to get through the day without eating or drinking until sunset. Being the only person to fast was accompanied by my host mom and my host brother being concerned about me. When my host family sat to eat almoco and I rejected to eat my host brother asked why I was not eating. I stated I was not eating because of my Polish tradition and my host brother had difficulty accepting this tradition.My host mom kept on asking me if I will eat something or drink something.
After we arrived in Tubarao, at my host grandfathers house, my entire host family cooked but there was a major difference becausethere were not as many dishes as I am used to in addition to the traditional kompot or fresh homemade fruit juice that tastes the best on the evening of December 24th being substituted by champagne.
Before we began to eat, I was able to share a Polish tradition and was transported to my home in New York City. My mom sent me two packages of the polish oplatek. I told my host family that this oplatek symbolizes forgiveness, friendship, and love. I also told them the oplatek is a reminder to people to be sharable and good like bread. I told my host family that the way the tradition with the oplatek is done is that one person takes an oplatek and another person takes an oplatek and the two people exchange wishes for the following year. Although at first being hesitant each person continued to exchange wishes and when everyone exchanged wishes they thanked me for sharing with them this new tradition. My host parents asked me if it is possible for me to send them packages of oplatek every year because they would love to continue this meaningful tradition.
Although this December 24th was very different from the way I celebrated December 24th in the Polish community of the United States I have broken the bubble of a single story Christmas. I am very thankful for everything my host family has done in the past four months for me. Even though sometimes I may miss the way commemorative dates are celebrated in my family I have to be open minded and understand that each country in the world has different traditions.