Since both my parents were born and raised in Poland, our family always celebrated Christmas Eve with Wigilia, the Vigil Supper. After sharing the wafer (opłatek) we'd sit down to eat a meal of mushroom soup, fish and pierogi. When the supper dishes were cleared away, everybody gathered around the Christmas tree and led by my mother, we sang Dzisiaj w Bethlejem (In David's City) Lulaj Się Jezuniu (Slumber on Jesus))and other Polish Christmas carols.
What I remember best about this special night is not the dolls or candy or games that were under the tree. What I remember best is our evening visitor who came with regularity every year until time and circumstances intruded.
When we finished singing the carols, my mother would always turn to my oldest brother and say, "Michael, call Johnny. Ask him if he'll come over." Johnny was my brother's friend, someone he went to school with and played with during summer vacation. He was over to the house frequently and was a nice Polish American boy whose grandmother had crossed the ocean as a young girl to take up life in America.
Obedient to her request, my brother would make the phone call and, like clockwork, year after year, Johnny would leave the circle of his own family to walk along the railroad tracks, trudging through snow drifts, to be our Christmas Eve guest. My mother, always so pleased to see him, would invite him in and give him a jigger of desert wine. Every year it was the same. Every year she would tell us and Johnny, that his visit was special - a male visitor on the night of Christmas Eve brought health and happiness to those who lived within. She believed it, and after a while, so did we, and we looked forward to Johnny's Christmas Eve visit as much as my mother.
The year Johnny was serving in Vietnam, we had no one to call and our yearly tradition was broken. Up until then I hadn't realized how much his visit meant to me. That Christmas Eve, I realized that the material gifts we receive on this night are quickly forgotten, long gone from memory before the next year rolls around. What's cherished and remembered is what people did and said on this special night. That's what stays in your mind and heart forever.
Merry Christmas. Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia.
**The photo is a postcard sent to my mother from her brother in Poland in 1957.
By all standards, our home was small. We had what was called in those days a "front parlor" that faced the street. It was reserved for guests who came to the front door, had better furniture and where we put up the Christmas tree every year. Then there was the room with a couch, a stuffed chairs and space heater where we gathered in the evenings to watch Ed Sullivan and The Beverly Hillbillies. We didn't have a dining room. What we had was a big kitchen with a white Kalamazoo stove that was part wood burning and part gas. There was room for the coal scuttle and the wood that fed the stove, the barrel of sauerkraut that fermented in the corner each November and a table and chairs for the six of us. There wasn't a lot of counter space so all the chopping, kneading, and pierogi making for Wigilia, the Christmas Eve meal, took place on the table.
One of the early preparations for Wigilia was making square noodles, in Polish called łazanki, for the mushroom soup that we ate only once a year on this night. The broth for the soup was made with mushrooms sent from Poland by my mother's family. In spite of Communist rules that forbade sending or taking mushrooms out of the country, a friend of a friend makes a visit to Poland, smuggles it out in their suitcase and then, once in the U.S., sends it to our address. Sometimes it was the other way around. Someone from Poland received a Visa and came to America with a hidden kilo of dried mushrooms and our address. It was the same when my mother sent packages to Poland. The packages were opened, inspected, and sometimes the better things were stolen so what could you do if you wanted to bypass the controllers? You sewed money into the hem of some not so great dress or the cuff of pair of pants and you ask in your letter (also censored) "Were the pants for Peter the right size?" As always, through 120 years of domination by Russia, Prussia and Austria or through the decades of Communist rule, you just had to find ways to circumvent the oppressor.
The mushrooms we have so now to make the noodles. They are square and homemade. My mother pulls out her stolnica, her battered and scarred wooden dough board, reserved strictly for anything having to do with dough, on the table. A chustka, a scarf, covers her hair and is tied back at the nape of her neck. As always, there's an apron over her house dress. Using a cup with a broken handle as a measure, she scoops out a couple of cups of flour onto the center of the board. Making a well in the middle, she breaks in two eggs, sprinkles everything with a little salt and begins working the mixture together with her hands. It's my job to dribble small amounts of water on the mixture while she keeps squeezing and incorporating the ingredients together. Her hands are here in America but as she kneads the dough, her thoughts are back in Poland. She tells me how, armed with baskets and pails, she and her siblings searched for mushrooms on the forest floor, the air filled with pine and resin from the trees; how the mushrooms were threaded on a string and strung across the enormous stove to dry completely and then stored in cloth bags in a cool, dry place.
Adding flour under and over the dough to keep it from sticking, she rolls it out paper thin across the entire board. With a sharp knife she cuts the dough vertically into thin strips and then horizontally across the strips until she has nice small squares of egg dough. She transfers the little squares to a clean dish towel sprinkled with flour and lets them dry over the next few days, tossing and turning them periodically so that they dry thoroughly on both sides. She stores them in a paper bag.
On Christmas Eve our first dish after sharing the opłatek is the mushroom soup made from mushrooms that sprung from Polish soil and the little square noodles. A little bit of Poland in America.
Łazanki (Square Noodles)
2 cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2-4 tablespoons water
In a medium sized bowl or on a pastry board, combine flour and salt. Make a well in the flour, add the eggs (they can be slightly beaten if desired), and mix. If needed, stir in 1 tablespoons water at a time until a nice pliable dough is formed.
On a lightly floured surface, knead dough for about 3 to 4 minutes. Adding more flour to bottom surface as needed to keep from sticking, roll dough out until thin.
Use knife to cut into ¼ or ½ inch vertical strips along entire dough. Then cut the strips vertically also ¼ or ½ inch wide.
Transfer the noodles flat on floured surface to dry for a few days. Avoid excessive overlapping as the noodles may stick together until properly dried. Store in covered container or paper bag. Cook and cool noodles ahead of time and pour mushroom broth over the noodles or cook right in the mushroom broth. If latter approach is used the broth will thicken.
**Łazanki can also be used to make noodle/ cabbage/sauerkraut dishes for Christmas Eve.
My husband loves to watch the cooking channels, the competitions, the complicated preparations, the exotic spices, the dishes that require a thousand steps before you can eat. I, on the other hand, am the product of my upbringing. I find myself wondering about what they will do with all that food afterward. Does everybody sit down to eat what's been dished out? Do they send it to a homeless shelter or, horror of horrors, do they throw it out? It worries me. It's a worry that often keeps me from trying different types of fancy dishes. I really have to know that it will be edible and that we will actually eat what I have prepared. Otherwise I'm a wreck and trying a new recipe isn't fun. So I tend to stick to what I know: simple, uncomplicated dishes like my mother used to make. The Advent season always brings to mind a dish that my mother fixed on a fairly regular basis for lunch or supper on the meatless days of Wednesdays and Fridays.
Kluski z jajkiem- noodles and eggs.
1.Either cook some noodles or use some left over from some other dish. Make sure the noodles are cold or at room temperature to minimize sticking.
2. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a frying pan, (I remember Mazola, the TV ads claiming " the goodness comes from maize"), add the noodles and heat through. If you want to get fancy you could fry up (in cooking parlance, caramelize) some chopped onions in the oil and then add the noodles.
3. Break in a few eggs (or as many as will feed four kids) and mix carefully until eggs are cooked through. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Plate. Sprinkle some parsley or dill on top. Serve green beans on the side. (There were jars and jars of canned green beans from the garden in the pantry.)
And on other days when fasting wasn't on the calendar, bits of sausage or ham were added, depending on what was left over in the Fridgedair. There you have it. No fuss, no muss, no trips to the grocery store needed.
Today is the eve of the feast day of Św. Mikołaj (St. Nicholas) who in Polish tradition brings children small gifts as a reward for knowing their prayers and catechism. The figure of St. Nicholas in his bishop's clothes, mitered hat and crozier is based on a person who lived and breathed and was once bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey). He was and still is revered in both the Greek and Latin Church. He is the patron saint of many cities in Poland including Głogowa, Chrzanowa and Bydgość.
This year as part of the celebration of 1050 years of Christianity in Poland, the city of Elbląg petitioned the pope and was granted the honor of having St. Nicholas declared the patron saint of the city. Even though there are seven churches in Elbląg with its famous Katedra Św. Mikołaj named after this saint, he was chosen as the patron of the city because he is still seen as the embodiment of mercy, kindness and charity.
Since the time of the Middle Ages, Św. Mikołaj was (but not limited to) being the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, and bargemen who traveled the rivers and seas. Elbląg, one of the main ports on the Baltic, was and is still a city that lives by the shipping trade. It has been associated with the Hanseatic League, a confederation of market towns that stretched from the Baltic to the North sea since the Middle Ages. The celebration of the establishment of the patron saint of the city will be held on December 6, the day of his death sometime in the fourth century, with mass said at the 13th century Katedra Św Mikołaj (Cathedral of St. Nicholas) in that city.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.