Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Milwaukee - 1959 and Later

This past weekend on public radio's A Prairie Home Companion, Broadway director and actor Walter Bobbie reminisced about celebrating Christmas in a Polish-American family in Scranton, Pennsylvania (when Scranton was known more for coal mining than for Dunder-Mifflin paper products) during the 1950s and '60s.

Bobbie's memories described something remarkably close to the Christmas traditions practiced by my own Polish-American family in Milwaukee in the 1960s and '70s.

For instance, Bobbie told the radio audience about the sharing of opłatki (singular: opłatek), a flat wafer similar to the host served at Communion. He noted that his family members would send opłatki in Christmas cards (as did members of my family who would be far away at Christmas time), and that on Christmas Eve, family members would break off a piece and give it to each other, along with a greeting of "Christ's peace." They might, he said, dip it in honey. (We did not include honey in our ritual.)

A book called Treasured Polish Christmas Customs and Traditions, published in 1972 by the Polanie Publishing Co. of Minneapolis, gives some background on opłatek:

Little or no food had been eaten during the day. All waited for the most significant moment of the entire Wigilia [vigil] supper, the breaking and sharing of the opłatek. The host and hostess enacted the ancient rite of the opłatek, facing one another each holding an opłatek, each breaking and sharing a part of the other's. They embraced warmly and expressed their love by wishing for each other, a fulfillment of their deepest yearnings. Then they broke and shared the opłatek with each one present, with messages of love (sometimes in rhyme) of good health, happiness, and an untroubled life, for one to be as sweet as the springtime and to live do dosiego roku, to live as long as "Dosia" lived. She was reputed to be many years over a hundred when she died, jolly and alert to the end, but no one could be found who knew her. The hostess performed a special task when she shared her opłatek with all those present. Besides the good wishes and love, she expressed without words that she would share her bread with those present here, should they be in need, just as she herself sould be willing to take from them, should her position be reversed.

opłatek, frail, perishable, has for all Poles a mystical meaning which cannot be explained logically. At Christmas time it is sent to absent members and close friends in strange lands, who in their loneliness, partake of it, as of communion with their loved ones at home.

opłatek, of little monatery value, is the treasured link that brings warm memories of Poland to her children settled in different parts of the world. Losing reality for the moment, they once again dream that they are seated with the family at the Wilia table, enjoying the blessing, forgiveness and warmth of those under the parental roof. At the time of this writing, it can be obtained from the nuns in the convents of America where a large number are of Polish ancestry.
Bobbie also said that dinner on Christmas Eve in his home was austere: fried herring, cabbage soup, and prunes for dessert. (This elicited groans from the audience at Town Hall in New York.) I am happy to say that this was not the tradition in my family by the time I was born (my dad usually brought home a bucket of chicken from Dutchland Dairy to spare my mother the task of cooking), but it is similar to the Christmas meal prepared by my great-grandfather and described to me years later by my mother: scrambled eggs, fish, and -- yes! -- prunes for dessert.

Finally, Bobbie said, after the early evening rituals, he and his family crowded into a car and traveled from house to house, starting with the youngest uncle until they ended up at his Uncle Johnny's place in Jersey City.

I thought I was listening to a recitation of my own childhood Christmas memories.

When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was the big affair and Christmas Day, as pleasant as it was, was almost an anticlimactic afterthought. Perhaps Christmas Eve memories remain more vivid to me today because the anxious anticipation of that night made it so embeddable in the mind and soul of a seven-year-old.

Here is how our family celebrated on Christmas Eve.

Each year a different aunt or uncle (siblings of my mother's mother) would host a party for exchange of opłatki and of gifts. Eventually my mother and her sister would, as adults with children, share in the hosting duties. No meal was served -- each individual family would take care of dinner ahead of time -- but dessert was available, and Christmas cookies, and herring and crackers and other delicacies, and plenty of beer and liquor. (This was Milwaukee, after all, and we were Polish.)

Before heading off to the family gathering, my parents would drive over to the convent attached to my school (St. Agnes in Butler) and deliver two gallon jugs of wine and a box of Christmas cookies to the sisters who taught me. It was during one of those deliveries when, at age 7 and sitting in the back seat, I read an article in The Milwaukee Journal that explained the origins of Santa Claus. It opened my eyes but I didn't let on for a while, perhaps thinking that if I revealed a disbelief in Santa, there may not be gifts under the tree for me on Christmas morning.

So one year the party might be at the Michalak residence, the next at the Czutas, the next at the Jaegers, the Geilenfeldts, and eventually at the Benkerts and Sinceres. But the pattern always remained the same: share opłatki and wish everyone, individually, a Merry Christmas, followed by an exchange of presents, with the youngest cousin opening his or hers first, and circling around the room by age until the floor was strewn with wrapping paper and toys and games were piled high in front of each recipient. (The last year I remember hosting at our house was my senior year of high school, 1976, and some classmates of mine from Marquette University High School arrived "unexpectedly," costumed as Santa Claus and his elves. That was a treat for the young ones, of course, and a minor break in the pattern.)

After that party broke up, usually around 10:00 o'clock, we began to make the rounds of homes in the Sincere family. We would start at my father's parents' house, then move on to my Uncle Bill's and Uncle Carl's and sometimes other homes, as well. At each stop there was lots of smoke (cigarette and cigar) and lots of booze.

I am astounded, given the snowy and icy weather that accompanied Christmas Eve in Milwaukee, and given all the heavy drinking going on, that we made it home without crashing into a snowbank or telephone pole. But we did.

As a child, Christmas Eve meant sitting in the back seat of the car, staring out the window at the sky and wondering if I would catch a glimpse of Santa's sleigh. Before leaving our house, we would listen to the Santa trackers from NORAD in periodic broadcasts on radio station WEMP, which played wall-to-wall Christmas music all day and all night. (And not that monotonous dreck played by "all-Christmas" stations these days -- radio stations in the 1960s had a much longer, much more varied playlist than they do in 2008.)

We would finally get home around 3:00 a.m., which is very late for a 7- or 8-year-old. Worn out by all the activities, my dad would carry me into the house, lay me in my bed, and, before I knew it, the sun was shining through my window and I discovered that Santa had, indeed, arrived with a load of presents.

My Christmas-childhood ended, in a manner of speaking, when I was 15 years old. That year, I joined my parents in laying out the gifts underneath the Christmas tree in the late-night hours of Christmas Eve after my younger sister had gone to bed. That transformed me into an adult for the holidays. (The next year, of course, when I was old enough to drive, was even more of a transformation -- I became the designated driver for the evening, which meant my mom and dad could imbibe even more freely than in all previous years. And I'm not talking wassail, either.) With age comes responsibility.

When my parents moved, with my sister, to Las Vegas while I was in college (in 1979), we did our best to continue the traditions with which we had grown up in Milwaukee. Even if it was just the four of us together on Christmas Eve, we would share an opłatek wafer and then attend a Polish-language Mass at St. Anne's Catholic Church on South Maryland Parkway. It was a little bit of snowy home brought to life in the arid desert.

While looking through some old home movies that had been converted to VHS and DVD, I recently came upon a sequence from Christmas in 1959. (Luckily for me, my grandfather -- who took most of the film -- included the date clearly in one shot.) That turns out to be my first Christmas, and you can see me opening presents on Christmas morning -- at the age of eight months!

The family posed and singing in this video seems to be from my mother's father's side of the family: Michalaks and Labinskis and Sasses and Ambrowiaks. In later years, we would celebrate with those branches of the family on a date closer to Epiphany rather than on Christmas Eve, on a Saturday evening in which we went from one house to another in a "progressive" dinner, each home serving a different course in a full meal. (The first two houses would be drinks and hors d'oeuvres, the third house would be drinks and salad, the fourth house would be drinks and the main course, and the last house would serve after-dinner drinks and dessert.)

The musical soundtrack I have added to this video consists of traditional Polish carols -- known as kolendy and pastoralki -- some of which were sung by Walter Bobbie last weekend on A Prairie Home Companion. And so the circle is complete.


Cathy Sincere Biermann said...

You have an excellent memory Rick. Does your sister have a name? No cute pic of us together? I sent you our first Xmas card and the one of us playing with fire. Its funny how now a good 35 years later I too remember driving around on Christmas eve. And all the stuff you described. But when did mom go from fried chicken to full blown prime rib or steak eve dinners? Also I remember Christmas day was at Grandma/Grandpa Michalaks house HOW did mom and dad do that when they had to be CLEARLY hung over..3am? Then up for Santa? then the family at Grandma/Grandpas? I can only hope I carry those genes with me!!

Rick Sincere said...

Maybe next year I'll write about Christmas Day and New Year's Day. We had a very full holiday season, however you slice it up.