‘God is born’
When the first star appears in the sky, all things – the whole world – gets calm and we share Love and we praise the Lord for his coming to us. We sit at the table – nobody should be alone on that evening – someone begins an old carol, composed to the words ‘Bog sie rodzi’ [God is born] written by the poet Karpinski.... We recall some images and all previous Christmas Eve dinners illuminate the past, our whole lives, like the stars shed light in darkness. You would like to recall all your Christmas Eve dinners from your childhood, the land of happiness, from the exile; the Christmas Eve dinners spent with the dying people who were very close to us; the Christmas Eve dinners spent in a new home, with your newly married husband or the terrible first Christmas Eve dinner after his death, but Hope and Joy that Christ was born did not leave people in all those Christmas Eve dinners. The awareness of Jesus’ birth has always been real. All the fragments and pictures, roofs covered with snow, frozen puddles, starry sky, sounds of carols and Chopin’s music, the smell of Christmas tree, faces of people who were close to us. All these fragments make one Christmas Eve like a big colourful fresco covered by curtains. Unveiling is a little sorrowful but the past and the present often merge. The poet Galczynski called it ‘a street of a forgotten carol.’
In a Polish manor house
My childhood was dominated by two pictures of Christmas Eve: the first one spent in the snowy manor house in Trzcianna, near Skierniewice in the region of Mazowsze, and the second one in my grandmother’s apartment in Warsaw (her name was Waclawa). Trzcianna was a legend, which my grandmother told me, but I got used to it so much that it became real.
Around the year 1820 the manor house belonged to my grandmother’s family, the Prandotow Trzcinski family and the Niemirycz family. Two neighbouring villages, Trzcianna and Prandotow, belonged to them. There was a unique lovely wooden parish church, founded by Teodor Potocki (in the year 1731) in Stara Rawa, which was ca. 5 km away from Trzcianna. They used to go there for the midnight Christmas Mass. They seldom went to Jeruzal, the church founded in 1798 by the Niemirycz family (Jeruzal was the so-called heavenly Jerusalem).
Many people used to come to the white manor house with columns for Christmas Eve and Christmas, and Trzcianna opened its hospitable rooms, even the attic, although cold and poorly heated, served the youth. The windows of the manor house never shone since the shutters were closed and even the blinds were pulled down, only the glass front door, leading to a corridor, was uncovered. On Christmas Day and Boxing Day ‘the walking’ dances of mazur and polonaise were performed in the long corridor. The fast dances, like oberek and polka, were performed in the living room that had a pale pink tile stove. I still keep a fragment of the ceramic finial of the stove in my small flat in Warsaw; it is vanitas, earthy vanity. The Christmas Eve dinner was solemn, prepared for a long time. All Polish customs were kept. Some hay was put under the tablecloths laid on several joined tables, and the wafers, bound with decorative ribbons, were put on several porcelain saucers. The tables were decorated with evergreen branches, and fresh flowers were put here and there. There were some candlesticks and in the background kerosene lamps lightened up the twilight of the room. A big Christmas tree was placed in the corner; it was not decorated. All dishes were fasting. Carols were sung after the meal. My grandfather Waclawa was a real lover of music, of songs and folk refrains; she played the piano and she sang. Later she taught me many songs. I think that folk bands (especially those from the district of Rawa) inspired some works of Fryderyk Chopin, which was commonly recorded (e.g. by Ferdynand Hoesick, the author of numerous books about Chopin).
Therefore, thinking of Christmas Eve I can hear Chopin and the sounds of my grandmother’s piano. I can see the outline of Trzcianna in the background of the starry sky, which is common on Christmas Eve.
These are dreams, these are unreal landscapes, these are the legends of the white Polish manor house.
The first Christmas Eve in Warsaw
The first Christmas Eve I remember (I was 5 years old) was with my grandmother in Warsaw, 14 Walicow Street. After the Soviet revolution my grandparents moved there after many years of wandering in Russia. The flat was very nice but it was on the fifth floor and there was no lift there. Some people had to be called to carry my grandfather Aleksander, whose heart was very weak, to the fifth floor. I remember going by train and then in a droshky. Christmas was approaching. The preparation was a great experience. I was let go shopping with a cook called Klementyna. She took a basket with her. She wore a big scarf with fringe. I held her hand that was rough and warm. That was my contact with the world. Klementyna bought fish for Christmas Eve dinner in Hala Mirowska. That was a large hall where mainly Jewish women sold fish. The smell of fish filled whole hall and sellers were shouting ‘Fish for Christmas, fresh fish! The supple, quickly moving fish were in metal troughs; from time to time the fish jumped and sprayed water with a loud splash. The women, wearing clean aprons, used strainers to catch the fish, which jumped so vigorously at that moment. I thought it was very beautiful. Then, when Klementyna’s basket was heavy we left the hall and Klementyna took me along the lanes where Christmas trees were put on sale. It was some enchanted unreal forest – all tress were properly cut and waited to be bought, but neither I nor Klementyna could decide which tree to choose because it was the men’s task – my father or my uncle Jas bought a tree one of those days and hid it before the kids.
That strange, geometrically placed forest, in the unnatural, artificial light, was one of my biggest experiences of childhood. When we returned home the paddles were already frozen. The dinner was prepared in the living room – the big table was laid for 24 people. A truly white tablecloth and hay under it. One could see my grandmother’s dowry – violet design porcelain cups and plates. I was let to put charming linen doilies that had a shining design of crabs. I thought that all those jobs that accompanied the ceremony of the Christmas Eve dinner were very important.
Dishes were prepared in the kitchen, small corridor (a small larder on the right) led to it. The big stove with white tiles, the so-called chimney, was burnt. A few women were bustling around. My grandmother supervised the whole preparation.
The corner window was partly covered with a starched lace and I could see navy blue sky with stars and falling petals of snow. My grandmother showed us fish bones from the boiled pike head. They had the shapes of the Passion tools, the women made signs of the cross. Understanding the significance of that moment I hugged my grandmothers’ legs. The gathered people sat at the table when the first star appeared in the sky, but actually it was about seven. The guests and the family seemed to be beautifully dressed, the women wore long dresses. I remember sharing the wafer and then during the whole dinner I heard whispers and voices, which were extraordinary, like music. I did not remember any dishes. Finally, the two-wing door of the living room was opened and I could see a huge Christmas tree! It was beautiful. There was a silver star on its top and beneath there were angels, which were our father’s toys. I sat under the tree and did not want to leave that place. I did not mind the presents at all. The Christmas Eve lasted long; there were long talks and carols were sung. As usual my grandmother began ‘Bog sie rodzi’, the carol written by the poet Franciszek Karpinski. I did not know whether I was able to fall asleep that night or might I have slept under the Christmas tree?
Christmas in the centre of old Warsaw
After several years my family moved to the district of Srodmiescie, to Lwowska Street. It was before the World War II, in 1937. That house, Lwowska 17, had interesting inhabitants, people of various nationalities and professions. The shopping hall ‘Na Koszykach’, situated close to our house in Lwowska Street has been preserved. The hall had some Gothic like foundation but the preserved decorative elements belonged to the pure secession style. The hall ‘Na Koszykach’ was completed in 1909. Before Christmas the hall was full of life. The stalls were full of fruit and vegetables, dominated by grey and beige rods of horseradish, beautiful dark red cranberries for the traditional gelatine desert, nuts, figs, dates, wonderfully smelling mandarins and oranges. Smooth, round beetroots, cabbage, pretty potatoes – golden or with dark peel – were in opened bags and baskets. The scenes resembled the famous still nature 18th century Dutch paintings. Of course, there were various kinds of fish but we traditionally went to buy fish in Hala Mirowska. At some moment, among that beauty of the fruits of the earth there appeared fairy tale elements: decorations made of colourful glossy paper, beads, small dancers, angels’ heads, crazy chimney sweepers, various baubles: round big balls and lanterns; small pot-bellied ‘santa clauses’ and striped ‘Lowicz dolls’. Christmas trees were also sold in the hall ‘Na Koszykach’. In a large yard the sellers fixed wooden stands to the trees the buyers chose. Those freezing cold men, dressed in humble clothes, did their job very thoroughly. I was sorry for them. At Christmas carol singers went from flat to flat. It was a very nice custom. A doorbell – I always wanted to open the door first. A small colourful crib lit by a candle or lantern was the first thing you could see and then several boys, the frost turned their cheeks red; they usually sang ‘Bog sie rodzi…’ Adults threw some coins into their tin cup and they also gave them sweets. There were several groups of such singers during one evening. As in a magic world a carol sounded in the opened door and a crib blinked.
Various Christmas Eve dinners
However, during the occupation we could sometimes see Jewish children from the ghetto, miserable shadows dressed in rags, with their heads down. They had bid, sad eyes. We gave them a lot of food and I felt some pain and shame in my heart. After the first, magnificent Christmas Eve dinner in the Lwowska Street in 1937, there were next dinners, also during the occupation until we were expelled from our home in 1944 after the fall of the Uprising; Warsaw was changed into smoking ruins. The first Christmas Eve dinner outside our beloved home was spent with my grandmother, an exile from Warsaw, in the house of my aunt Romana Pracka in Rawa Mazowiecka. Some family members were in the concentration camps: my father (who died there and his body was burnt in a crematorium), aunt Jadzia, the husband of aunt Romana (he died in Dachau) and others. Some family members belonging to the local gentry came to Rawa to celebrate the Christmas Eve dinner with aunt Jadzia; there were the outstanding mathematician Witold Bork (an exile from Warsaw), the head master of the Rawa gymnasium, a priest with his nephew, other family members as well as my uncle Jas with his wife and small son Jacek (exiles from Warsaw).
A long table was laid in a separate part of the house, a white tablecloth, white porcelain set. I did not remember the dishes. A small Christmas tree, placed on the grand piano in the corner of the living room, had very tiny needles. Our hearts were sad, some pain of the exile from the house of childhood, from Warsaw, from my grandmother’s house. A state of uncertainty – the German Wehrmacht soldiers stayed in the neighbouring estate in Duchowizna. We heard them singing carols. Everything was different, cold, strange in the house of my aunt Romana and only the white wafer put on the evergreen branch reminded us of the newly born Child and the carol played by my grandmother Waclawa. No presents; on the walls some stuffed birds wobbled on artificial branches. There was a portrait of Kosciuszko in golden frames; it was a copy by Orlowski, the first husband of my aunt; an old pendulum clock struck the hours. It was a provincial living room.
The first Christmas Eve again
Just after that Christmas Eve, on 17 January 1945, Rawa witnessed the great land offensive. In March I returned to Warsaw with my grandmother. Some good people drove us there and dropped off near the Polonia Hotel that had survived. And thanks to God’s Providence, among the sea of ruins our Lwowska Street and our house had survived, too.
Despite the tragedy our first Christmas Eve in the empty house was wonderful. The old, big, oak, folding table had been preserved. So we put two sheets on it and placed hay under it; the hay smelt nice. The wafer was on a white saucer. There was a Christmas tree without any toys, only paper stars and instead of chains we put plenty of colourful threads; the beautiful, old toys and the angels, which my father liked most, were gone. But the war also took my father and other family members. We were sitting at the table. My grandmother was silent, always self-controlled; we were survivors; we did not know the fate of other family members.
It was 24 December 1945. We sang the carol ‘Bog sie rodzi…’, again those old magnificent words of Karpinski. That Christmas Eve in a real home, although we had suffered so much, was God’s Gift. Christmas Eve – unique evening, there is an extra plate for a wanderer on the table. This is Lord Jesus or a lost person who carries a part of God in his heart, and so do we.