discovering the season of advent through my Polish past

My sandbox read this afternoon* was a charming vintage book my MIL picked up at an estate sale, knowing it was exactly the sort of thing I’d love.

*there’s a very large sand pit in the backyard; many afternoons are spent here while the little girls dig around.

Beneath the Crust: discovering the season of advent through my Polish past

She was right. I loved it.  

The book was published in 1972, dedicated to “...the memory of our parents and Polish ancestors, who gave us the gift of their heritage; to the Polish people who had to leave their native the youth of Polish descent, and to all others who are interested in research in the areas of folklore and other ethnic studies.” 

It’s funny—as I was flipping through the pages I realized how my siblings have connected far more with our Polish descent than any other...even though we’re an equal split between Scottish, Dutch, Polish and Ukrainian, a quarter each. 

And I wondered why.  

The dedication page struck me on this note... “who gave us the gift of their heritage.”  

That’s it, it’s a gift. And like a gift, it needs to be given.  

discovering the season of advent through my Polish past

We are connected to our Polish heritage because we are so close to our Polish grandma, whose parents landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900s, looking for a new life in the new world. We love my grandma, we are proud to be hers, we are glad to be what she is: Polish. 

As is the case for many such families who came from the “old world,” our Polish heritage was nearly lost in the enthusiasm to assimilate the American culture, language, and way of life. 

One of the sole ways this heritage was preserved and passed on to us, given to us, is through food. Some of the recipes we use are from my grandma, perhaps handed down by generations of babcias before her. Others are traditional foods we discovered on our own. Still more (perhaps the best!) are from our Polish sister-in-law. All serve to connect us to our heritage. 

Food is such a rich, tangible, and obvious way to share a culture. It can be so defining of a people and their ways, and yet remain so open to being shared and given.

Food can be deeply personal, and still communal. 

This book I was reading, Treasured Polish Christmas Customs, is charming, filled with quaint folklore, lively traditions, heart-warming pictures of a simpler past.

But it made me realize something. Trying to revive these customs in an attempt to retreive my Polish heritage would be futile. It would be like gluing a dead branch onto a tree...not that these traditions are dead themselves, but they are dead to me. These traditions were born out of a vibrant living culture, and I’m not in it. For me to try to live them would be forced. 

I also realized something else. My Polish heritage has been shared with me, already, in the person of my grandma.

Food was the vehicle, but the real heritage given was passed from her heart to mine. 

Now, with Christmas coming, I had originally opened up this book on Polish customs eager to discover some wisdom from the past on how to prepare. Sophie, Maria and I were all talking last week about how NOT to get sucked into and carried away by the pre-Christmas frenzy.

Of course it’s all eager anticipation for Christmas Day, but how to reign it in a bit so that Christmas itself stands out as the celebration (and not all the days of preparation and parties before it!)? 

discovering the season of advent through my Polish past

Like I hinted at above, many of the customs I found in the book’s pages would be totally contrived if I attempted them. But one thing in particular struck me as feasible, even helpful.

I discovered this idea of  “prządki.” Originally it meant “to spin,” as in, everyone get together and spin at your spinning wheels all night. During the weeks before Christmas, which is the season of Advent, prządki would be spent getting ready for the holidays. Everyone would get together at someone’s house, some would be spinning, some sewing, some embroidering. Others would mend things (like shoes, fishnets, etc.), still others would be baking. They’d eat, sing, tell stories, and work the night away. 

The point being: everyone had stuff to do to get ready for Christmas, so why not all gather and do it together?  

I love this idea of turning the frenzy of Christmas preparations into a time spent with others. This is a transformation of what otherwise could be stressful or tedious or solitary (Christmas card writing, wrapping presents, preparing gifts) into something joyful and communal—a burden shared. It is a way to reorient the preparations toward what they really are anticipating: Joy to the world, Peace on Earth, Good will to all men. 

So, the customs of my past don’t have to be totally discarded. There are still threads connecting the culture of my Polish ancestors with the culture I live in today. I think the threads that last, that hold true today as they did yesterday, are, ironically, also the ones that are more universal.

Like food. Everyone needs to eat, so food becomes something that can be passed down from generation to generation. It con contain the very heart and spirit of a people, and yet be shared and enjoyed by all people.

And friendship. Everyone needs friends. So traditions that foster community, that bring people together, are ones that can be lived out year after year, century after century.

Then of course there’s love. Love is the reason why we have any traditions at all. Love brings people together, love makes families, love is why we want to preserve the things we’ve done together and share them with generations to come.

And the culmination of these things is what we look forward to during this time of Advent. What do we celebrate on Christmas but the arrival of a food that feeds all people, a gathering together of all men, a love that binds us close to all that have come before us and all that are still to come?

discovering the season of advent through my Polish past