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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why So Much Fish?

There are a lot of stressful things about the holiday season – wrapping up presents with your children banging on the door, making the exact number of cookies you’re required to take to the cookie swap and having your house packed to the brim with relatives can be depended on to raise your blood pressure. But, the dreaded “small talk” at holiday parties is usually near the top of everyone’s list. It’s always nice to catch up with acquaintances and coworkers’ spouses at annual gatherings, but what do you talk about once you’ve covered all the basics in 90 seconds?

One of my favorite questions to ask people is about holiday traditions that are special to their families. It’s always fun to hear what other people do to celebrate the holidays (I had no idea that getting new pajamas on Christmas morning is a regular thing in so many households!) and hear the stories behind family traditions.  

My mom is originally from Poland, and she brought a number of holiday traditions with her. Christmas Eve (Wigilia) is considered more important than Christmas Day itself. We eat our big meal on Christmas Eve and open all of our presents after dinner (quite untraditional, I know).

We anxiously await the appearance of the first star (gwiazdka) to signal the start of the Wigilia feast. Before sitting down at the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer (oplatek) and exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the new year. The number of dinner courses is fixed at seven, nine or eleven, and is traditionally a meatless meal, the result of a long-term mandate of the Catholic Church that a strict fast and abstinence be observed the day before Christmas. The traditional Wigilia menu my mom grew up with included mushroom soup, boiled potatoes, pickled herring, fried fish, pierogi, beans and sauerkraut, and assorted pastries, nuts and candies for dessert. Every year my mom tells us about how her father would purchase the Christmas carp before all the stores would close for the holidays, meaning the live fish took up residence in the bathtub for a few days before the big meal.

Our family enjoys eating fish, but not enough to eat seven courses of it or share  a bathroom with a live carp for a few days, so we’ve adapted these traditional Polish customs. We still start the meal with breaking the traditional wafer, but then sit down to feast on all of our favorite Polish dishes, including meat ones. It’s nice to celebrate our family’s heritage while enjoying the dishes we don’t have very often.

After dinner we roll ourselves into the living room to open all of our presents. We spend the rest of the evening watching our favorite Christmas movies, with A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at top of the list. I can usually make it through the first movie but always fall asleep in the middle of the second (this has become a family joke). My husband and I saw National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation recently, and it was the first time in my life that I saw the ending!

Well, this blog post ended up being a lot longer than I expected! Now you know why I pull this topic out of my pocket when party conversations start to falter. So, what are your family holiday traditions?

~ Nicole

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