I know I’ve been neglecting you terribly, friends. And I hope to remedy that soon, even if it means posting whatever comes off the top of my head in snippets barely longer than a Twitter post.
But until then, I’d like to once again share this story about Christmas in my house. Here’s hoping your holidays are every bit as wonderful as they can be.
I grew up in a very large family: I’m the youngest of ten kids. Yeah, you read that right. I have five older sisters and four older brothers — an even 5/5 split. To make things even more surreal, there was an eight-year gap between my youngest sister and my youngest brother, so most of my siblings are at least ten years older than me, with the difference in age between me and my oldest brother clocking in at ten days short of an even twenty years. So even in my earliest memories, my siblings had significant others, and very shortly thereafter, kids. (I now have a niece and two nephews who are married. But I’m not a great-uncle, yet.)
In addition to that, my dad’s biological mother died shortly after he was born, and his father got remarried, which made for five separate and distinct branches of the family tree just two generations back, counting the families of my maternal grandmother and grandfather, paternal grandfather, paternal grandmother, and paternal step-grandmother. And many of them came from big families. (We’re talking about turn-of-the-century reproduction statistics here, mostly for recent immigrants to the country; this was not at all abnormal.)
Anyway, to sum up: we’re a big family. So the holidays were always a fairly substantial production.
While Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were reserved mainly for our immediate family (that is, the twelve of us plus, later, spouses and kids — I think we were up to forty-two attendees at the last count, including my late parents), there was one event each year that brought out the entire enormous clan: Wigilia.
Wigilia (pronounced vuh-GEE-lee-uh) is a Polish Christmas Eve celebration (Wigilia shares its root with “vigil,” as in waiting for the birth of Christ) that, in its traditional form, is celebrated with very specific foods and forms of preparation. Some of the observances include sprinkling straw under the tablecloths to signify the odd cradle choice at the Nativity, and setting an extra place at the table, to signify hospitality to travelers (I presume to make up for a certain Bethlehem innkeeper’s legendary faux pas), especially travelers of a divine nature. Some of the foods include pierogi (a type of savory stuffed pasta, similar to ravioli but much, much bigger and much, much more filling), baked apples, and probably some type of vile fermented cabbage that your parents force you to eat even though it quite literally makes you gag, and you tell them so but they think you’re just trying to get out of eating something you don’t like but someday you really will end up throwing up all over the table and then they’ll be sorry!
Sorry, where was I? Ah yes: Wigilia. We didn’t observe all the traditional foods or ceremonies. In our house (or, more specifically, in the sprawling, cavernous basement of our funeral home), Wigilia was about getting every damn distant relation we could find together for a night of entirely too much food, quite a bit of alcohol, Christmas carols, visits from Santa, games, moderately priced gifts, and oplatki.
(A word about oplatki. This is another Polish tradition in which a wafer — or in our case a truckload of wafers — having been blessed in a special Catholic ceremony, is distributed among all the attendees of Wigilia. Each person takes a wafer or wafer piece, and wanders around the room. When they encounter another person, they each break off a piece of the other’s oplatki and exchange a familial greeting appropriate to their relationship. This continues until every person at the gathering has either a.) exchanged oplatki with every other person at the gathering, or b.) run out of oplatki. Do the math on my family and you might assume that the length of this operation could be measured in hours. You would be correct.)
So: A huge space packed with probably a couple hundred relations, all making merry in age-appropriate fashion and stuffing themselves. It was great. As a child, I found this massive influx of people I barely knew just short of miraculous, a feeling only intensified when inevitably, in the middle of the evening, the sound of sleigh bells would herald the approach of Santa, who would take us young ones on his lap, ask if we’d been good, then reach into that giant garbage bag and pull out one — just one — small gift for each child, more than enough to tide us over until the next morning. He’d stay for one more Christmas carol and then ho! ho! ho! his way back up the basement stairs.
Somehow my dad always missed Santa coming by.
Now, Wigilia was a wonderful event in itself, but even more wonderful was the fact that on his way back up the chimney Santa would leave the rest of our gifts under the Christmas tree in the living room, two floors above.
(A word about the Christmas tree: It was magic. You see, every year my parents would put the Christmas tree stand on the floor and fill it with water, whereupon my youngest brother and I would drop in one of the magic Christmas tree seeds my mother kept in the kitchen, at the back of the top shelf to the right of the sink. The next morning, we’d wake to find a full-sized Christmas tree in our living room. It wasn’t until much later we noticed that the magic Christmas tree seeds bore a striking resemblance to whole peppercorns, and that the back steps always seemed to be freshly vacuumed the morning after a planting.)
Anyway, since everyone knows Santa won’t leave gifts if he’s observed, it was strictly forbidden for us to leave the basement under any circumstances during the course of Wigilia. In fact, we’d often leave for midnight mass at St. Josephat’s directly from the basement, thereby prolonging the revelation of the gift count that much longer. And trust me, even the most hyperactive child would struggle to maintain interest in anything other than sleep after a two-hour Christmas production in which everything is said twice: once in English and once in Polish.
But time passed, like it does, and us kids started getting older, like kids do, and one year — I was maybe eight or nine years old, I’d say — I worked up the courage to boldly disobey the prime directive of Wigilia and sneak up to the living room. After Santa had left, I let a reasonable time pass and then padded up the business stairs from the lesser-occupied new section of the basement, inched open the door marked “private” in the main parlor, and crept up the back stairs into the house. Even before I turned the corner I could see the soft, reddish glow coming from down the hall. With my heart climbing higher and higher in my throat, I tiptoed the last few steps into the living room. What I saw there I have not to this day forgotten, and I doubt I ever will.
Let’s go back to the math for a moment: There were twelve people in my immediate family at that point, plus spouses in a number I would have to have been paying better attention to remember. But since I was approaching double digits in age, that meant that many of my older brothers and sisters had already gotten out of college and started out on their own. That meant less mouths my parents had to feed, and less school tuitions they had to pay. And furthermore, the family business was continuing to improve thanks to the passion and caring of my dad and his employees. (Plus, you know what they say about funeral homes: people are just dying to get in. Ah, ha. Ah, ha, hah, ha. Ahem. Sorry.) So understand that this was an unusually good year in the Rybicki household.
Now, our living room was pretty huge. I’d estimate it was maybe fifteen feet deep by maybe forty feet wide. Big enough for our whole family to squeeze in, if that gives you any indication. Even factoring in a generously sized Christmas tree and a couple couches, there was a pretty good amount of free space in this huge room.
But not this night. The room was lit solely by the lights from the Christmas tree, two or three candles on the mantle, and a dying fire in the fireplace. That soft light glinted off of the wrapping paper of presents stacked carefully upon every available patch of floor. There were presents behind the TV. There were presents on top of the five-foot-long record player console thingy (there was a time when both TVs and stereos were furniture). There were presents on the coffee table, behind the couch, and damned if I don’t remember there being presents under my dad’s chair. There were presents leaning against the walls all the way around the room, I swear. It was ridiculous. It was magical. It was the manifestation of childhood holiday fantasies, the Platonic ideal of Christmasness encountered at just the right age for it to make an indelible impression.
And as I stood there, with the hi-fi murmuring carols softly in the corner, the golden light reflecting a thousand thousand times off of glitter and tinsel and ribbons, I wanted to cry. Sure, I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing, I wanted to laugh, I wanted to tear open presents and roll around in a pile of wrapping paper. Certainly. But I think most of all I wanted to cry. To this day I don’t know why; I would have thought I would have been too young to be overcome by complex emotion. But I wonder if some part of me knew that it wouldn’t be long before I outgrew some of that magic, before the simple wonder of the holiday started to wilt under the withering glare of crass commercialism.
I didn’t do any of the things I wanted to do at that moment. Instead I tiptoed back downstairs, closed the private door behind me, padded back into the basement and jumped into a game of statues with my cousins. Later, we went cross-town to midnight mass. And when we got home, I went to bed. Through all this, though, I was only half-present. A significant portion of my brain was still up in that glowing room, buzzing with anticipation, drugged by holiday atmosphere. From the moment I came back down those stairs, it was all I could do to sit still. I never slept easily as a child, but it must have taken literally hours for me to finally drift off that night.
And what did I get out of that enormous haul the next morning? What did Santa bring to reward my having been good all year (or at least all week)? What early-eighties toy craving was satisfied that day?
I haven’t the faintest idea. Can’t remember for the life of me. And honestly, I think it’s probably better that way. Because in the end, what’s under that wrapping paper doesn’t matter one tiny bit. The magic is what matters, and that will always be there, whether there’s a hundred presents under the tree or none at all.
So: from me to you, from my family to yours, Merry Christmas. Also: Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Winter Solstice. Here’s hoping your winter holidays are every bit as magical as they should be. May they be filled with laughter, good food, good music, fine people, cherished memories, and all the pierogi you can shove in your face. Na zdrowie!