Thursday, May 29, 2008

Christmas in Krakow: A Reflection on Traditions

Every culture has its own Christmas traditions, and I am not ashamed to say that I am wholly and partially biased toward the Ukrainian rituals. Though, while I’m in Poland, the Polish is more than good enough and that’s what I was seeking out when I decided to catch an early-morning train to Krakow.

Krakow has all the positive vibes Radom - a tough, industrial, idle city -- does not. Krakow’s academics, artists, mixed in with the folksy people who come to sell their wares from outlying villages at Rynek Glowny (the Central Market), create a lively, inspiring atmosphere. Having escaped annihilation in World War II, Krakow is one of the few cities in Eastern Europe that still stands in its original architectural glory. It’s a quintessential European town sought out by visitors from abroad and when I arrived there the weekend before Christmas, my spirits were more than uplifted; they soared the whole day.

From the train station, I took the Royal Way and passed Florian’s Gate, turning onto the cobbled, slush-covered street that suddenly opens onto the enormous square of Rynek Glowny. Kids toted wooden sleds and huddled together on corners, dressed in the fashionable puffy jackets of this season and comic, woolen hats with tassels and pom-poms. As they laughed, the balls of yarn bobbed and bounced in rhythm. Stalls were set up outside of the covered market building and I was greeted by carols sung from somewhere and everywhere. The sun pretended to offer some warmth, and a slight breeze blew down powdered snow from the crevices and crags of the buildings around the square. I was in a real-life crystal snowball. As the bells of the cathedral announced twelve o’clock, people passed me with brown, plastic cups of steaming liquid. I smelled cinnamon and cloves and followed it to the barrel-shaped stands selling real mulled wine. For the converted price of $1.25, I was a cheap date. It’s not often that I have alcohol these days (bardzo expensive), so it went, I’m afraid, straight to my head and I became doubly giddy, practically skipping through the market.

I wound through the Christmas-tree pathways and among crowds of foreigners and locals, passing stalls with beautifully handmade Christmas decorations, as well as necessary, kitschy things (so you could really appreciate the former). A stage was set up just under the clock tower, and I vaguely heard an announcer’s voice over the microphone. By that time I was eyeing a matinee movie when I was yanked out of my reverie by music. It was so familiar that I was forced to float back to the stage and the festival. There they were: young girls, boys, women and men, dressed in the native costume of Halychynna (the area of Ukraine where my family comes from), and singing Ukrainian Christmas carols. I whipped out my camera, trying not to fog the lens with my uncontrollable tears. Home sweet home! The boy on the end was even holding a staff upon which rested the Christmas star. One of the girls recited a poem of Christmas greetings. The crowd laughed and cheered. I got another mulled wine to choke down the tears and read the sign that said, “Bridges Across Borders” in Polish. I had come on the day when the group from Lviv (Lvov) was performing.

Ukrainians love Christmas and I, personally, have a hard time deciding whether Easter or Christmas is my more favorite holiday. Both religious celebrations are performed with such beautiful and happy rituals, that it’s difficult to say which one makes me feel more fuzzy and warm inside. On the other hand, Christmas is such a time of enchantment, of making dreams come true. It’s a fire that warms your heart in chilly surroundings.

In Ukraine, traditions stem from the old pagan rites. The decorating of the tree, for instance, was not something that was introduced with Christianity. Throughout Europe you will find that people do not put up their trees until - at earliest - the 22nd of December. More commonly, it is done on the day of Christmas Eve and is a family event. Candles are placed in the windows to light the way for ancestral ghosts and real, live visitors passing by. In the villages of Ukraine, groups of carolers go from door to door with Shchedryks - carol songs for the Epiphany, and also meaning, “bountiful and generous.” The host of the house prepares mulled wine, or other spirits to warm their wandering guests. The hostess prepares a meal of at least twelve dishes to represent the twelve Apostles that would later serve the Lord. (However, on Christmas Eve a fast is mandated: no meat or dairy products are allowed until after the midnight Liturgy.)

The carolers are bundled up in colorful scarves and carry the staff with the eight-pointed star, representing the star that led believers to Bethlehem to worship the new-born King. After the carolers leave, the family sits down to the feast. Kutia is the first and main dish: a mixture of boiled wheat, honey, poppy seeds and nuts, it’s a thick and warming gruel. The host takes a spoonful, says a prayer before the supper and then flicks the spoonful up onto the ceiling. If the kutia has been well prepared, it will stick to the ceiling and bring luck and prosperity to all those around the table. If it isn’t thick enough - duck! (We did this at our house every year, and my American friends would often comment on the little black specks on the ceiling. Every so often, we would paint over it. The big clumps, not many, were easily removed on Christmas Day.)

After kutia comes the red beet soup, borscht, with small dumplings named after the shape: ears. Inside the dumplings is an onion and mushroom filling. One dumpling will contain only black pepper. The lucky person (or unlucky, depending on your ability to down spices) who gets this dumpling will also have a year’s worth of luck. So even if you are pulling kutia from your hair, you’ve got another chance.

The soup course is followed by a fish cooked with onion and tomatoes (believed to have come to us from the Greeks and, in Poland, retains its name of Greek haddock). Fish, by the way, is not considered “meat” by the Catholic church.

After the fish, unbuckle your belt because the rest just come marching out and onto your plate. Choose a little of everything, from holubtsi, which are cabbage rolls filled with either rice and mushrooms or kasha (barley) and potato, or - after church - with meat and a mixture of any of the above. Sometimes a tomato sauce is served with it, or a forest-mushroom sauce. There are also pyrohy - Eastern European-styled ravioli filled with potato, sauerkraut, or cheese, or fruits; crepes known as nalysnyky and filled with cheese or fruit; a sauerkraut and pea salad; and the list goes on and on. Some people might notice an extra setting on the table or somewhere nearby. Non-Slavic celebrators have often asked us whether we were expecting more guests. The answer is always yes. This setting is for the dukhy - the ghosts of our ancestors who are certain to visit us and will need to eat as well. So a little bit of each course should be left on your plate and added to the dukhy’s plate.

In Ukraine, if you live on a farm, or even in the cities where you have pets, it is customary to be especially kind to the animals on the night of Christmas Eve (which is, by the way, the primary day of celebration). It is said that the animals can speak at midnight, so many farmers would set up some hay under the table and allow their favorite animals to rest there - sheep, dogs, cats, goats -- which would normally be stuck in the stalls in the cold winter. At our house, our pets would just get extra portions of left-overs, be dressed up in ribbons and bows, and there would always be at least one present for them under the tree.

After we eat and help our digestive systems with a good 1:1 ratio of vodka:food, everyone waddles to more comfortable chairs around the tree. Slowly we start to unwrap presents (you must sing a Christmas carol to receive it; everyone joins in if you’ve picked the right key), making our way toward the time when we’ll have to don on our winter gear over our fancy dress and head out to church. Carols greet us in the church, and then - drowsily - we make our one-hour stand through the service. After mass, sweets (now heavily weighed down with butter, eggs, and so on), fruit compote and tortes are served. Sometimes, the odd pierogi is taken from a cooled dish to be nibbled on or, if we were lucky enough, dad is baking the ham for the next day and we get to taste.

The next day, we start all over again at around 2:00 and finish unwrapping presents and exchanging gifts. This time we wolf down turkey, ham, and all the other high-calorie, tasty stuff along with an equal amount of liquids and spirits. Carols are sung until late into the night. Often, when I was younger, we would go caroling with groups from our church and, for hours, one parent or another would drive us to people’s homes. As I got older, these visits often turned into full-blown parties where we’d come to an abrupt halt in the route and just stay on until the morning.

Ahh.. Christmas… I was thinking of all this, with a great happiness outweighing the sadness caused by distances between those you love. I knew that the purpose of my coming to Krakow was to get to Ukrainskyi Smak, a restaurant under the Wawel - Krakow’s crowning hill and castle. I wanted to get there slowly, to work up my appetite and to enjoy my memories. Like an old wine cellar, the Ukrainskyi Smak has high, brick and stone arches and the two chambers leading to the dining rooms are filled with long wooden tables and benches. Carpathian rugs hang on the walls and cushion the benches. My friends, Ivan and Volodia, two musicians from Lviv, were playing the violin and accordion and greeted me like their long-lost sister. I joined an older couple from Krakow at one of the enormous tables and we chatted away in a mixture of Polish (from them) and Ukrainian (from me), over dinners of borscht, and holubtsi and pyrohy. I was smiling. I could feel the cracks in my face. I could feel the lightness in my eyes where sadness has seemed to weigh them down.

After Ivan and Volodia caroled for me (which made me weep with homesickness), I headed back into the darkened streets. Christmas wreaths and lights were hung across the roads and I picked my way along the uneven cobbled streets back through the market (pausing at the cathedral to send up a prayer of thanks). It was time to head back to Radom. I was infused with the Christmas spirit; enough to get me back home to Austria, where I knew my other family and friends were waiting. As were the all-new traditions I would experience in that part of Europe.

P.S. Until the western part of the Ukraine was invaded and, then, ruled by Poland, the country was primarily of the Eastern Orthodox religion. The country is still split between Orthodox and Catholic calendars. Therefore, due to the ancient calendar, most Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on January 6 and 7, Christmas Eve being the primary day of celebration. This is still the case in the Ukraine as well as in the Diaspora. In my family, we had two Christmases, as my father is Byzantine Catholic, and my mother is Orthodox. At our house, we also celebrate Easter twice.

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