Memories of Christmas Eve Past
Christmas Eve Snow in South Florida?
Memories of Christmas in a cold climate is something natural. Christmas and snow flakes are a natural vision for many of us. Very true for folks born and raised in these climates.
My wife and I were both born in the Western New York area. We both grew up there and we met there. Special memories abound for both of us when it comes to the Holidays. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are at the top of the list. Unfortunately, we see no snow since we moved to South Florida in 2005. But, our memories are snowy-white, and freezing, and fun. After all, we lived in the area well known for lake-effect snowstorms.
Do you recall the first time you were invited to the Holiday celebration of your special someone's family? Ghost of Christmas Past, take me to 1995, that first Christmas Party with my soon-to-be fiance's family.
Awkward, out of place, quiet, unassuming, unappealing all describe me as I sat amongst these "new" family members. Yes, at that time my wife and I were only dating, but I knew it was something special and these folks would be part of my life from that moment on. The pre-dinner drinks loosened me up a bit, but I still knew no one, I was not "in" on the family gossip being talked about. An occasional question about my work or family came my way, but I was an observer more than a participant. Still, there was genuine warmth. As much as I felt awkward, I also felt welcome. This family tradition was so special to them and now I am included. It is special when you get to this point of feeling as one of the group. Observers often take in the big picture, not the minute details and all I could see that first Holiday party was a family that loved and enjoyed one another, and they allowed me in to share in their tradition.
Every Christmas, my wife and I, and eventually the babies, then the kids, would get dressed up fancy for this Holiday get-together. More or less, the same people were there year after year. Of course boyfriends and girlfriends changed, some family members passed away, and some babies were added. Faces we missed during the year were recognizable, though a bit older each year. Life updates would be gathered during the festivities from family members. We looked forward to it and I felt just as welcome during our last Holiday Party in 2004 as I did during my first. It was a tradition for us, and we looked forward to it. The Holiday drinks, the whiskey cherries, the great Polish traditional Christmas food! Homemade desserts, and Krupnik....oh the Krupnik.
The food and drinks were fabulous.
Usually the word beer conjures up images of toothless overweight people in ripped shoes. Well, maybe not, but my wife's family tradition included beer and all enjoyed it. It is a classic part of their tradition.
The beer was ice cold in coolers out on the patio. The main reason the beer was on the patio was due to the fact that the kitchen was a frenzy of ladies cooking the traditional meal. Blenders, pans frying food on the stove, specialties boiling, the aromas were heavenly. And, there was no room for guests to come into the refrigerator and get their beer. So, the beer was out on the patio, but it was perfect. No ice needed because the natural ice and snow accumulating on the cooler during the night would keep the beer at a perfect temperature. The beer itself, tremendously tasty. Being in Western New York, we were very close to the Canadian border and the Canadian beers are great and fresh. We would walk out onto the patio, no jackets please, open the cooler as snow flakes fell and we would grab a beer. My wife would head back in to talk to the ladies while I stayed out with the men as they smoked some cigars and talked about all things men do...sports, politics, cars, family, etc. I shivered as I drank my beer and joined in some conversation, but it was tradition and I loved it. I wiped some snow off me before we headed in for the "toast."
Another special tradition was the whiskey cherry toast. The entire party would gather in the center of the floor and we would toast to all things good. A cherry in hand, and some of the "juice" in a small shot glass in the other. These cherries were swimming in top-shelf whiskey since summer, and sometimes longer. The longer, the better. One year we had two-year old cherries and they were spectacular, and powerful. My wife and I brought this tradition to Florida with us, and we have a small batch "swimming" right now, waiting on Christmas Eve. After some classic appetizer fare, the Opłatek wafer blessing was next.
The Polish Opłatek wafer is a dried wafer similar to a communion wafer. The wafers have imprinted religious symbols and pictures on them, the size of a postcard. Tastes like a postcard too. Actually, it's not about the taste but the tradition. Everyone took a wafer and you went around the room breaking a piece off the other person's wafer as they broke a piece off yours. You would wish the other person good wishes and good health and best of luck in the upcoming new year, and they would offer you the same. By the time you toasted everyone, your wafer was down to nothing. It was fun to watch the small children eat most of their own wafer or break off huge chunks off the everyone else's! A great moment during this traditional night.
The hosts of this traditional Christmas party are my wife's cousin and his wife. A great marital blend of Polish and Italian cultures created some great ethnic specialties through the years and this night had the best the Polish side had to offer. The "head chef" was the mother of the Host. She was a grand elegant Polish lady with a great sense of humor and she could cook and talk all night. She did pass away a number of years ago, but her role and recipes have been passed down, as they should.
A classic Polish Peasant Christmas Eve dinner, called Wigilia, was served. Seven courses, all meat-free, passed down through the ages, using inexpensive ingredients for poor families as they gathered on Christmas Eve. We started with Mushroom broth soup, made from imported dry mushrooms. No noodles, but rather diced potatoes as an accompaniment. Next up was split yellow peas and cabbage, followed by starchy barley and prunes. A fish course followed, here we had Yellow Pike, pan-fried to perfection in butter with a horseradish cream topping. If you like fish, you would love this. The next course was home-made pierogies stuffed with cheese or sauerkraut. The final courses were desserts, cookies, and that hated favorite of all, fruit cake. All during dinner, there was conversation, laughter, Christmas music in the background, and memories shared. Genuine love, family values, and smiles were part of the tradition during dinner.
Now on to the Krupnik. Krupnik is a Polish honey-flavored liqueur, which is quite strong. We would drink down one shot after dinner. Interestingly, just about everyone would partake in this. Even the elderly aunts and uncles that seemingly did not drink. Amazing how some folks followed traditions closely and this was nice to see. Of course, some of us had to follow up with a second Krupnik. I can taste the honey right now.
After dinner, there was more conversation, more beer, coffee, desserts, opening of gifts and just a great time. This was family time and we all hated to see the night end.
For my wife and I, this particular family night ended when we moved away, but we still have our own Wigilia tradition on Christmas Eve. We can find some Canadian beer here in Florida, and we do our best to mimic the Krupnik. My wife is a great cook and even though we cannot purchase Yellow Pike here, we do get some Cod or Halibut which work fine. The original recipes have been passed to my wife, so even though her Aunt has passed, the tradition and memories carry on to this Christmas Eve and beyond.
Ghost of Christmas Present, take me back to today.
We miss this great Christmas Eve family get-together, but we brought this great tradition with us, and hopefully our kids will continue this down the road when they grow up and have families of their own.
Traditions mean nothing if it ends when family members leave, pass away, or get older. Traditions should follow families through the decades and generations, and my wife and I hope to keep this a part of our lives and our kids lives through the years.
So, will we see snow in South Florida on Christmas Eve? Not likely, but with a great tradition as part of our lives, the snow will always be with us on Christmas Eve, no matter where we are.