Parallel to this recollection, I can hear my Wujek Boguś causing uproar; staggering around with a bottle of Wyborowa under one arm and a saw in the other, singing. Ross is not spared this tradition; in our town, the men marked out a tree for chopping under the cover of darkness. They would often have a few stiff drinks for encouragement, being at serious minus numbers outside. This would get them to the tree, perhaps even to chopping it down. They would however rarely make it back to the house. The women found themselves sitting at home with the decorations ready and waiting with no man and no tree for the night. The morning would find half-frozen husbands and brothers stumbling around for their loot. Ross enlisted a friend for the job as I, according to tradition, sat waiting at home.
Around 10pm, there are some scraping noises at the door. I rush out to see Ross and his friend stumbling under the weight of an enormous tree, branches waving everywhere – “Darling, this is a lot bigger than the one we picked isn’t it?” I ask, wondering how on earth we are going to get it through the door, never mind into a room. “Aye, I’ve brought you the most beautiful tree in Scotland!”, as the two of them stagger around I retreat into the warm. Typical men, I think to myself, bigger is not always better! We are scheming a way of cutting back one end of the tree to fit it in the hallway.
This year, I shall be host for the first time. I have experienced three different Christmas traditions thanks to my English father, Polish mother and Swedish step-mother, (in Sweden they are called bonus-mothers and bonus-children – terms we both prefer). I shall have the pleasure of experiencing them together this year. A Polish Wigilia and introduction to our traditions for Ross will begin the festivities; the reins will be handed to Heather, Ross’s mum for Christmas Day lunch and Boxing day will see us driving to my Dad’s for a Swedish lunch with his wife and my brother. It is the best of three worlds.
The Swedes, like us Poles, love herrings, smoked fish, meat and a stiff drink. Christmas Eve finds them sipping glogg (mulled wine with a healthy dose of brandy) and schnapps, washed down with beer and a Swedish version of coca-cola. A small glass of each is poured and you drink from each one periodically after a song. My bonus-mum sees one of the more poignant cultural differences in these traditions: the Swedes have to sing a song before drinking and the Brits only sing after too many! This usually bodes for a merry time especially since the food is served Smorgasbord style, which involves standing up frequently, (no chance of hiding any swaying!)
Our Polish Wigilia is a rich evening full of tradition. Everyone helps to decorate the tree with bombki. Inevitably my Ciocia Irminka does all the cooking (on account of her supreme skill). Something which always stands out in my memory is the karp served on the wigilijny stół; it is not amongst my favourite sea foods with a pungent taste and many bones, however it is a mass-slaughter across Poland. For about two days these carp have been swimming around the bathtub, looking at you as you brush your teeth. The afternoon before the big day finds my uncle brooding over a bottle of vodka. The next day the carp are miraculously presented as battered pan-fried cutlets and aspic jelly. Many people do not like the carp, but tradition persists even though you never feel quite the same about a relaxing bath again! We gather at the table when the first star shows in the sky. A prayer is said, over a glass of something and it is opłatek time. As we share a piece of opłatek with everyone present, we take a minute to appreciate them; often verbalizing things we have not found time to say in the course of the year.
There should be some straw under the table-cloth and 12 very different dishes. An empty space is reserved for the late traveller or the homeless. A wonderful gesture, but in this day and age, who would let anyone into their homes? Excuse my cynicism; they would perhaps be subjected to a body search first!
As I write this, I realise how much ceremony and ritual there is in our Polish way. For the Brits, Christmas Day is the apex of the festivities opened by stockings, big presents and a champagne breakfast to gently ease the 5hour wait for the turkey as I remember! The table presents: a bird, bread sauce, mince pies, puddings and all kinds of alcohol. Some families spread their gifts throughout the day, leaving something to look forward to. A resurfacing tradition from the deep past involves stuffing the turkey with a duck, which contains a grouse; cooking them all together, inside one another.
A pre-Christmas get together sees my girlfriends from university and I gathered together in Leeds. Anna has just moved into a flat with her boyfriend and is proudly nesting. Assembled from all over the country, we make the last pilgrimage before Christmas. I am immediately molested for Polish vodka and vogue cigarettes, Becky is pestered for Sing star – the karaoke you can actually lose at and Hannah is helped with her bags, containing pots of ready cooked offerings. One thing is for sure, we may still behave like students when we get together, but thanks to Hannah; we eat like kings.
The girls are particularly attached to Żołądkowa Gorzka and Kraków owing to our post-graduation week there. We revelled in our new-found freedom and each other’s company. However, I would not let the visit pass without showing off the motherland. We climbed up to Morskie Oko, passing the górale with their horse-drawn buggies – I wasn’t going to let them have it easy! At the summit, there were those who continued the vertical climb up to the Czarny Staw and those who waited over a pint of piwo z sokiem – who will not be named!
These meetings are invaluable to us. As young women who love each other we explore the different experiences we are having in relationships, work, study and emotional states. With every year I treasure the sharing more and more; lessons from our peers are easier to assimilate than from our elders. People often say that the friends one makes at university are special, I do believe this is true; when else in your life do make friends so close they know your bra size, how you take your tea, what kind of hangovers you have, how you deal with break-ups and the style of your essay writing?! These girls are family to me, (an amusing, often slightly inebriated one!). We now number amongst us: two lawyers, a primary school teacher, a nearly architect, a property manager, an artist and a journalist – not bad for a bunch of scruffs!
Kraków has hosted for me such wonderful times. When I lived there, studying with children of Polish parents, we wove our own tapestries of memories into the city. Our homeland will never leave us, ensuring the health of our customs wherever we are on the planet. My darling friend Ania has been in Łódz, finalising her wedding plans. Our ‘Snob’ club has stood the test of time and distance. At the time of our reunion in 2010 it will have been two years since our paths separated, which fills me with optimism for the future. Ania is on her next step in woman-hood. She wants a proper Polish wedding and the ‘Snobs’ are in charge of the bramy – I predict some serious vodka drinking and potato peeling challenges!
My dear Hamish (a grand-father figure to us), has invited himself to our Christmas proceedings, although he is rather vague with dates and times, I presume he will arrive when he is hungry and I will pretend that everything is made by my precious hands due to Hamish’s dislike of the supermarket / convenience culture. Despite the fact that he is inconvenienced by having to wear shoes in winter, it is his season. The frosty mornings rather suit his white, bushy-beard and eyebrows – an eccentric Father Christmas!
This time of year courts reflection and a desire to tie up loose ends; a chance to look back at the year and see what we have achieved. What a dynamic year: I have tried my hand at country life and committed myself seriously to a man, a land and dogs. The decision to do this has impacted my emotional health dramatically after a lifetime of gypsy hood. It is time to go forth and love one another and depending on how rebellious one is, to make a list of resolutions or sins to commit…go ahead, take some risks!
I wish to thank my wonderful Editor, for such an amazing opportunity and a first taste at publishing my written words. It is an honour to write for a multi-cultural newspaper; being from a mixed background is such a big part of my life. I also wish to thank my readers, for joining me on this colourful journey of the last year, a special thank-you to those who wrote in expressing their interest and to Ross, my Mama, my wonderful family and my brilliant friends for supporting me through my debut!
Wesołych Świąt and Merry Christmas!
• Wujek: Uncle
• Wigilia: Christmas Eve
• Smorgasbord: Buffet
• Ciocia: Auntie
• Karp: Carp
• Wigilijny Stół: Christmas Table
• Opłatek: Rice paper
• Żołądkowa Gorzka: Traditional vodka
• Górale: highlanders
• Morskie Oko: Glacial lake near Zakopane
• Czarny Staw: The next lake
• Piwo z sokiem: Beer with syrup
• Bramy: Challenges for a couple before marriage