December 23, 2008
When I was young, there was much talk of “the Christmas spirit,” and I’ve always been fortunate enough to begin experiencing the joy appropriate for this time of year sometime before the big day. This year, that happened this past Sunday. Going to church in the morning helped put me in the mood, as I knew that the next hymn I heard in church would be a song for Christmas, not Advent. There was fresh snow on the ground and blue skies above, and I was able to fully appreciate both as I took the dog on a long walk in the local park, blessedly quiet since most of the road going through the park was closed to traffic that day. In the evening, I wrote out Christmas cards while listening to some of my favorite Christmas music—including the Gabrieli Consort’s stunning Mass for Christmas Morning, an attempt to recreate what a Lutheran Christmas service might have sounded like in 1620. And as I wrote out the cards, the smell of freshly baked nut roll came in from the kitchen. But the definitive proof that I finally had the Christmas spirit came when I put on a far less exalted CD than the Gabrieli Consort’s for the drive into work on Monday, and began listening to Li’l Wally “the Polka King” sing Polish Christmas carols with the St.Stanislaus Choral Group of Michigan City, Indiana, a record I have known and loved for nearly as long as I can remember, despite its imperfections. I am quite a mutt, with ancestors coming from all over northern Europe (including one line that arrived in America in 1623), but at Christmas I tend to think of myself as Polish.
My Eastern European forebears were typical of the Ellis Island immigrants who came from that part of the world: they remembered Europe as a place of poverty, and their children wanted nothing more than to become Americans. My grandparents made a conscious decision not to pass along their parents’ language, and I can remember older relatives telling me, “We live in America so we speak American.” In fact, they seemed to prize only two things the family had brought over from Europe: their Faith, and Christmas.
I grew up enjoying all facets of the American Christmas, from the trees to the lights to the presents to food to the music. Part of what I enjoyed was the fact that Christmas is preeminently a time for tradition. What other time of year do popular radio stations ever play music from the 16th century, such as The First Noel? But what also helped drive home the importance of this great feast were the activities most other Americans did not share. The highlight of Christmas for me was not opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning, as great as that was, but the dinner we had the night before, beginning with the sharing of oplatki—rectangular pieces of unleavened bread very much like those used for Communion, decorated with scenes of Christmas—and followed by a meal similar to the one the Piataks and the Kowalskis had been having on that night for centuries. (Although the Piataks came from Slovakia and considered themselves Slovaks, they came from a village close enough to the Polish border that its dialect was a mixture of Slovak and Polish and the Christmas Eve dinner was the same as the one observed north of the Tatras). The impression I received, from my earliest years, was that this was the most important night of the year, an impression I recall whenever I hear one of the Polish carols I first heard on Christmas Eve.
One of my Grandma’s early memories was of singing those carols to her mother on Christmas Eve. She was the one who played Li’l Wally’s Christmas record, and explained to me what the songs were about. I couldn’t understand the words, and still don’t, except for a very few. But what clearly came across in that record was heartfelt joy at the Incarnation. By and large, the authors of these songs are unknown, and many are clearly folk compositions. This is music of the people. Indeed, in Poland, villagers would go door to door singing these carols, and families would sing them at Christmas Eve dinner, just as my grandmother had sung those songs to her mother on that night. Despite their astonishing variety, these songs are largely unknown here, except for Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (W Zlobie Lezy in Polish), and perhaps Lulajze Jezuniu, the beautiful Christmas lullaby Chopin used in his Scherzo in B Minor. However, those exposed to this music often love it. My Mom, who has zero Polish ancestry, grew up singing these carols at St. Stanislaus Kostka grade school in Youngstown, and shares my fondness for them. And despite the middling quality of much music in such venues as YouTube, it is possible to get a small sense of the beauty, joy, and exuberance of much of this music from what is available on the Internet.
Of course, Poland was hardly unique in its efforts to bring beauty to Christmas. Such efforts were replicated throughout all of Christendom. As the conductor said at a Christmas concert I attended the other night, more music has been written for Christmas than any other event. And all of us have different memories of Christmas, and different ways of helping to remember what Christmas means. My hope is that all of you have been able to remember Christmas Past in such a way as to enliven Christmas Present and connect you with that first Christmas, whose hope has never been extinguished and never will be. Merry Christmas! Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!