- December 24, 2014
Hoy, off we go with jingle bells… Christmas in the Vilnius Region
“Earth, you’ve had your bloody dreams; you surely had red Christmases before. Isn’t it enough? You’ve suffered horse rattles in your frozen parts, heavy wheels gridded on the snow, and silence of the nights was broken by rustles, screams and gunshots. And through the quiet and white fields; through the forlorn towns wandered a faint and wavering shadow – sorrow, and with tearful eyes looked it through every window… Isn’t is enough?” That is how Eugenia Masiejewska wrote about how good it would be to brush off still fresh memories, when Christmas was to be spent in Vilnius region during the dark years of war in 1914-1920.
“Turn on more lights on the Christmas tree, kids. May the choir of the silver voices be heard and fill every home, and its purity quell the cold winter air. Carol! Carol! Jesus, little dear Jesus just raise your tiny hand, and we will rise our Motherland and bring it glory and happiness!” – appealed Masiejewska in 1922, and it was not so long ago when people wrote about Vilnius region that it was “FREE!” but “starving to death!” There were food donations organised in Poznań, Warsaw, Łódź and other cities to feed people in Vilnius.
Vilnius region was recovering from deaths, famine, cold and the terrible fate of being detached from the motherland. The years of German occupation left still fresh taste of bread made during the war, which was baked with the addition of mashed potatoes and wood flour. Christmas reflections were then the most serious, since nothing as blatantly as Christmas could bring new hope for a better tomorrow and the return of joy and happiness at the Christmas table by the Christmas tree.
The memories during Christmas in the mid-1920s were more pleasant. Indeed, there was not so much grief. People became accustomed to freedom and peace. There were memories of frivolous storytelling about Christmas before the war; about traditions, dishes, and the human, family joy. Children listened to their grandparents’ stories about how it once was. In many houses, people talked, and talked at Christmas tables, such as the ones of Czesław Jankowski, Wanda Dobaczewska, Witold Rodziewicz i Marian Pieciukiewicz from 1926.
* * *
“During my childhood days, and even later, people drove the so called cart” – said the old man when started telling his story. “There was so much snow during Christmas time, God forbid. The roads were completely impassable, and people had to wait for carts to clear them. There were piles of snow near the villages; there was so much snow that it covered almost everything – the fences, even the whole cottages – that the village looked like a snow hill. Only the smoke, which came from chimneys stuck in the snow, could be seen. Let the blizzard strike. People did not say ‘blizzard’ then though; that word was too literary, so to say. Like grandfathers and great-grandfathers, everybody said ‘heavy snow’. But even without heavy snow, the wind spread snow around the fields like hell. The day was mercilessly short. The roads, as it had been said, were completely impassable; people moved above the fences and roofs; it certainly was difficult for people to go out.
The grandfather was lighting the pipe, brooding and thinking… and the kids, looking at the pipe’s smoke, could no longer wait to hear the rest of the story.
“Indeed, people rode carts, which was a horse-drawn vehicle with two or three horses harnessed to it – one after the other. Imagine a sleigh, the one with the box on the top – the so called Russian ‘wazok’ (accent put on the last syllable). The box is immovable. Naturally, there was also a family winter box – the movable one. They were used less often because of their weight. The horse that was harnessed to such a box, first in the row, had a lot of work to do. One should not ride a horse cart with two horses harnessed to it… or three, which was too many and too difficult to maneuver. And never ride a three horse cart with a bad carter (the word coachman was not used in common speech at noble courts).
In the first village on the road, the horse in front of the harness climbed on the top of a large pile of snow, and while going down on the other side, who knows why, it turned back and got stuck in the snow so that it could not move, no matter what. It flung about like a fish in the blowhole; then the second horse obviously did trod on the first one; even the whole cart started to crush these two making it impossible for them to go out – the horses are stuck in snow for good. The carter got his whip tangled in the harness of the front horse; the cart got stuck in one snowdrift, and almost fell on the other; the horses snorted, the carter sweared, and the cart cracked. The lady in the cart clasped the man and whispered with frozen lips to him: “Beneath Thy Protection…” Two kids fell out of the cart into the snow… What a mess!!!
And did we ride carts and on rail bars through snowy roads, over the fences, over the roofs – oh, yes we did. Long time ago in Vilnius villages, people either hosted their guests, or went for a visit themselves during the Christmas time. Very few stayed at home with their wives and children alone. What Christmas Eve would it be for six or seven! What kutia! What Christmas!
The smell of fir was in the air and everyone looked at the bowl with kutia. The grandfather smoked a pipe and slowly continued his story, which attracted the children’s attention. “Aren’t there many relatives in the neighborhood? Even in three, four, or six miles! Christmas and kutia is a family tradition, after all. Kids deserve entertainment as well. Let them spend Christmas together. The question is: at your or our place?
“No, no… We meet at our place!”
“God forbid! Last Christmas we met at your place. This year, you come to us.
Of course, every last one of you. Even the smallest kids were taken, but with a nanny, obviously. And Francis, the butler, shall come with you; he will help to serve at the table. It was the God’s grace if two carts left the porch, or only one and the sleigh.”
* * *
“People used to arrive at dusk. Children came out eager to find out who was coming. The lights were barely visible, disappearing behind tress all around… The horses snorted once they smelled the stable. The snow that covered the fields illuminated. We go, indeed we go… The old Matthias, who stood all the way, is ready to whip the horse. We have already passed the cross on the parting of the ways. Their hearts started to beat faster out of joy!
“Children!!! Stop shifting! Don’t uncover yourselves! Stay calm! It won’t make it any faster! My God! Ferdek, don’t cause so much trouble! Maniek! Please, don’t push your brother, or else he falls out” – screamed mother. The kids bowed their heads ashamed because the grandfather’s story in fact could as well be applied to their behavior two hours earlier, i.e. when they shifted during their journey.
The grandpa smiles and continues his story: “The lights in windows shined brighter as they approached. The children could not stop looking at them. The horses snorted more often.
“There will be a Christmas Tree!” – shouted children.
“Mom! It shines! It’s on! It’s taking forever to get there!…”
“Stay calm. You know that kutia comes first.”
“Why is there so much light in the saloon?”
“Because the guests are there.”
“So tell Matthias to drive faster.”
“How can Matthias drive faster when there’s so much snow on the road?”
* * *
The grandfather paused for a good while, and looked at the Christmas tree placed in the corner of the room. He contemplated for a moment, smoked his pipe, and continued: “In the old days, when I was little, not a single child was familiar with a Christmas tree. What I mean is that the fir covered in candles and candies was not called the Christmas tree. It was simply called the tree. And no one spoke of Christmas in the context of giving presents and preparing houses as well. People rather said: “Children will have a tree for Christmastime.” The Christmas and the Christmas tree came to us… from the Kingdom. It was popularized by Warsaw magazines for the youth.
Or, for instance, Saint Nicholas. Has anyone heard of him here in the post-uprising times? Saint Nicholas? The one with long, grey beard, who brings children presents for Christmas. No dear sir, excuse me, but Saint Nicholas is not saint for us. Nikolai… Nikolai… (accent on the last syllable again). It sounds awfully like Russian. Saint Casimir… Saint Stanislaus… These are our saints. But Saint Nicholas? No mother did every think, even for a second, of telling her child about Saint Nicholas during the post-uprising years. Saint Nicholas here was… how to put it…boycotted. He was a good, or even very good saint; however, it would be better not to tell children about Saint Nicholas. The tradition of Saint Nicholas felt somehow like Russian.
Now, people from the former Congress Poland and from the former Galicia try to inject us with the tradition of Saint Nicholas, and eagerly want to make him the patron of the Christmas tree. Hmmm! No one can resist. Not anymore. But still we can say to him: dingus est intrare (he is worthy to enter) to our children’s room. Still, when Saint Nicholas, laden with Christmas presents, enters our children’s rooms, the angels who protect their beds seem to protest and defend them. But it certainly only seems that way… For there are many different and strange things happening to people on that charming, full of traditions, moods, legends and memories Christmas Eve!”
Children shake their heads with disbelief because how can they possibly think of Saint Nicholas not being real, that he has never existed? And that their grandparents never got presents, which they so emotionally expected themselves.
The grandfather pondered once again… and after a moment, while looking at the table he continued: “Kutia is our Christmas Eve. Since not so long ago people in the country started to call kutia the Christmas Eve. What are you going to have for the Christmas Eve? What did you have for the Christmas Eve? Will you come to our place after the Christmas Eve? There are also uszy (uszka – a traditional Polish dish prepared for the Christmas Eve; uszka means “little ears” in Polish), which are still new during the Christmas Eve. But people will get used to them… or they won’t, and lose their “hearing”. Kutia is a dish, which now became the name of the supper. It’s made from barley, and sometimes from wheat.
There were traditional dishes on the Christmas table (of course, with the hay under the tablecloth!), apart from the other, hot ones. So there were mainly kissels: red (made from the cranberry juice) and white (blancmange, a kind of jelly made from almonds, milk, sugar and fish glue). There were also kūčiukai dried with poppy and honey, boiled wheat, and boiled peas which were added with sito (water with honey). In some houses people prepared blocks made either from barely or wheat, which were poured with sugar water with poppy. It constituted the fundament for kutia, liturgical and traditional. And there were pieces of wafer stuck in every kissel, in every pyramid of peas, and in every dish of kūčiukai.
Oho! It could not be omitted. Wafer was the symbol of kutia. Wafer on the Christmas table is, without a doubt, like standard on a mast.” As the grandpa was telling his story, children started to smile since that ‘standard on a mast’ sounded somehow funny, and at the same time stimulated their imagination.
“It was modish to hang a star finely made from multicolored wafers on the lamp over the table. Or a bowl also finely made from wafers. It was important to remember about the tradition. First of all, people were forbidden to work. The housewife, while cooking Christmas dishes in the kitchen, removed the so-called ‘nakip’ with a spoon and threw it in the corner of the room for the ancestors’ spirits. After setting the table and putting hay under the tablecloth, the dishes were brought. The oldest man (or the host) in the country houses sat on pokuć by the painting. He started the supper by raising his hand holding a spoon and saying: “It’s cold, it’s cold, come eat kutia!”
Traditionally, herring was the first from the Christmas dishes to be served. It was served with sliced boiled potatoes and boiled beets. Only few tasted herring though, saving their appetites for the main dishes. After eating herring, the mushroom soup with uszka was served. The soup was generally liked. And after the soup, hot fishes were served. In many houses people prepared pike with mayonnaise; the bigger it was the better. The pike was served in an antique dish, all white because of the mayonnaise sauce, which together with dark raspberry jelly filled the dish.
After such a variety of fish that came from our lakes and rivers, or was delivered to the court from distant parts… the tench in brown sauce with almonds (the sauce was really brown because it had to be like that), the bream on straw with mushroom sauce, carp, perch or vendace were served. Soups were eaten with the smelts. After eating fish, the main kutia began. Kūčiukai and kissels (with the almond milk) were brought. There were lovers of oat kissel, which was eaten in the areas near Vilnius during the German occupation (1914-19), when the only grain was oats.”
The grandfather’s “delicious” story made kids’ mouths water: “The tradition was to taste all dishes. Naturally, everyone had to taste kutia. Dried pears and plums prepared for compote weren’t served – it was the Ukrainian tradition.”
It goes without saying that the alcohol drinks were also present during the Christmas Eve supper. And upon the end of kutia, two or three people left the table without notice and headed towards the saloon, where they found the Christmas tree. It was such a joy for children! There were candies and dried fruits brought from Vilnius. The most prestigious bakery in Vilnius was Bem located at Niemiecka 1 Street (editor’s note: today the corner of Vokieciu 28/Traku 17), in the house where later was Sokołowski’s hotel. After Bem, he was the one who became d’Amman of the Vilnian confectionery industry at the corner of Trocka and Niemiecka streets.
It happened that in Vilnius (and also in Cracow) upon the end of the Christmas Eve supper the cheerful band started to sing carols, some louder than the others. Or they sat in the saloon by the Christmas tree. It wasn’t common during my childhood in manor houses in the country. People didn’t sing carols at all. Carols were sung during Epiphany, during which Three Kings visited manor houses and villages right after Christmas or even on the first Christmas day. The Nativity made in the image of, for instance, Warsaw one, was rarely seen in villages and towns. People sang mainly occasional religious songs during Christmas.
Sending the wafer not only to relatives, but also to friends was a common practice. Alas, that tradition is slowly disappearing in the twenties. At the beginning of kutia, people did not neglect to share the wafer when exchanging Christmas greetings; quite the opposite, people prolonged that moment to feel special, and to fully and truly celebrate the highly religious occasion which is Christmas.
Often, people long nestled their beloved heads. And everyone in our country, who got attached to our tradition, did not rush in paying respect to the wafer. Take Judge Aleksander Kryczyński; he is a loved man and a highborn Tatar. He is also a devout Muslim; he never skipped a Christmas Eve in his manor house and always gave a proper kutia to his service and people in court. When everybody gathered there, he personally shared the wafer with them and exchanged Christmas greetings. When will the time come when people will travel the globe with wafer and shake hands as a symbol of peace?
* * *
Ten years later (1936) the other grandfather while talking about the old Vilnian Christmas added: “Saint Nicholas is everywhere; sito is forgotten by the young in their motherland… Some traditions are disappearing: the rush of life erases anything that falls behind. Thirteen dishes! Ah! One needs a couple of hours to eat them… Who knows what will be changed next about the Christmas supper? But whatever will be changed, people should do everything they can to make it even more joyful. On that cold evening, by the white wafers, when the star shines, everyone will be happy, and on their lips will be smile. Free and easy, we should celebrate Christmas as a festival of spiritual renewal and victorious happiness.”
“And at midnight there is Midnight Mass! It’s always better to go to the Midnight Mass with more people, with light and singing, because the more we are the safer. There are wolves lurking on the streets, scaring horses with their green eyes, but on the Christmas Eve they can scare no one.” When the grandfather drooped his head being lost in a philosophical thought… children quickly left the table and spent the rest of the evening playing. And year after year until they tell their grandchildren what they remember from the grandfather’s stories…
And may they make the most of them. And let me add something; I hope that there won’t be a tradition to spend Christmas with the bottle of “C..a C..a” (the commercial of which being broadcasted on television way too often) on the Christmas table.
Before the First World War, Saint Joseph brought children presents, and Saint Nicholas was in Galicia. “It seems that everyone accepted Saint Nicholas fast and easily. It also seems that the angels, who protect children’s beds, do not protest anymore. He is one of the oldest Saints after all. […] As far as that Christmas patron is concerned, people now accept him in all regions of Poland. “
Boiled pęcak (wheat or barley kasha) was strained through a sieve to get the kissel milk. Then, the pot was put in the stove and stirred with bacian (a stick with a characteristic nose to stir with) so that the kissel would not burn. The kissel was frothing in the stove, and then it was put in vessels and brought to cold so it could clot until evening. It was served with the poppy milk. Kissel was the most important. Without kissel kutia would not be the same. After the Christmas supper, there would still be much of kissel left in the larder for the next couple of days.”
Vodka, a drink made from grain, is present on the Christmas table; however, there can be neither too much nor too little of it, only just the right amount of it.
* * *
Illustrations and photos come from the author’s collections.
Waldemar Wołkanowski (Opole University)
Translated by Tomasz Szatkowski within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.