THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND DIFFICULT DAY
You have betrayed us! – my sons shouted when I told them the news. I am not going to be at the Christmas eve supper. I am going to Pakistan on a winter journey to Nanga Parbat 1997/98 as a correspondent for ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper. The betrayal was conscious – I had co-organized an expedition to the Himalaya onto the eight-thousander above Indus.
Krzyś and Łukasz, students of the primary school at that time, were to prepare the Christmas eve supper ‘as usually’ that time. A cheat sheet was in an old notebook. On pages stained from paging through at the table in the kitchen, there were handwritten family inscriptions: ‘Vilnus tortillas of grandpa Marek’, ‘a cake of auntie mania’, ‘a shortcake of grandma’, ‘dumplings of great-grandma Emilia’, ‘a cheap cake – anti-crisis’ and other valuable recipes. My suggestion of getting some dishes from the shop instead of making them at home met with the outrage of my boys: - how dare you! They rejected my advice to buy a small Christmas tree instead of putting a tall tree as we had usually done, by placing its trunk between the floor and the ceiling and they said: - It has to be real Christmas eve! House has to be filled with the smell of fir, baked cakes, mushrooms, beetroot soup, fired carp, compote of dried plums. One must cry over cutting onions. We must prepare dishes which we make once a year, because they do not taste good in summer, only profane memoires. My sons managed to do it perfectly. I phoned them every day.
I spent that Christmas eve in Islambada with my colleagues from the expedition. From the window one could hear singing by mullahs from minarets. During another Christmas eve I was sharing Christmas wafer in the base at Makal – the main place of eight-thousander in the Himalayas Nepal. The valley was closed by an enormous wall Lhotse and Mount Everest sticking out from behind its back. Several years later I spent the Christmas Eve in Karakorum in China on the bottom of a deep river Szaksgam on the way to the expedition at K2. Low temperatures maintained glaciers which melt in summer, filling the riverbed with furious rapid whirl.
Christmas eve in the highest mountains are similar. If it is not cloudy or there is no hurricane, the sun paints the sky orange, sets down and there is night at once. In the thin air stars seem to be in the reach. In the light of the moon one can read. Tents of the base are our home. There is hypoxia, frost. Wind carries pieces of rocks which cause cough. In the dry air fingertips and lips crack. One can often feel the taste of blood in the mouth.
It takes us a few days to bring an artificial Christmas tree, baubles and Christmas wafer from Poland to the base. We also hang small climbing tools on the twigs. We have a table made of chests which we lay the table with cloth made of golden and silver rescue foil. One must eat dishes very quickly as they get frozen to metal plates.
Tinned fish is warmed up in the boiling hot water. We cook powdered mushroom soup and beetroot soup. It is possible to bite a cake baked in a pot on the gas machine only when it is warm. In the freezing cold air smells float far. A very thin dog arrived at the base at Makalu. When it was fed, its fur got thicker and shiny. It used the eclipse and when it was a very dark night, it ate the last piece of cheese from our storage. The poor dog had his belly longer than its legs. It was lying on its side, gasping for air and was digesting.
I wanted the highest mountains to hear carols. It did not happen so.
Regardless of how funny anecdotes my colleagues were telling, the Christmas eve supper reminds All Souls’ Day. We reminisce expeditions and those who did not return from the mountains. In the base at Makalu, near tents at a big boulder there was a grave. 31-year-old Andrzej Młynarczyk died in a tent when he was lying ill. He was strangled by snow at night, when snow slid down the slope. Before I sat at the Christmas eve table, I lit a candle on the grave, which I had especially brought from Poland.
A permanent element of the Christmas eve program was a long queue to….a telephone box – my tent with a satellite telephone. Nostalgia for relatives and home cannot be prevented on this day. A talk at the table is fading as everybody is far away in their thoughts.
My beautiful Christmas in the mountains is creaking snow under feet on the way to the Holy Mass, the Tatra mountains in snow, lights of torches twisting in a line towards a sanctuary, warmth striking from windows of the wooden chapel full of carols, joy, smile, and inside the Queen of the Tatra mountains and the Host of the common house opened to everybody.
In Poland we can pray legally – but we do not appreciate it. In I have not been to the Holy Mass in Islamic Pakistan; in China I attended a secret Holy Mass; in Nepal – I attended a legal Holy Mass, because we had been allowed to it since the year 1991, but later a bomb set in it by the Hindis killed a few people and injured a dozen of them. In Peruvian Andes I could attend the Holy Masses in a lot of churches, and pray legally in Advent, but nobody there knows what an early morning mass at Advent is.
And who was at 6 a.m. at the early morning mass at Advent, for example, at the Dominicans’ church in Służew in Warsaw, he knows that such a mass is awaited for the whole year!
Unfortunately, the most difficult Christmas Eve I have experienced was in the Tatra mountains. Because hope of the nation for life in freedom, stifled with terrorism, stifled Hope which is brought by this day. December 1981. The spooky general in black glasses announced the martial law. The Valley of Five Ponds, buried under snow. The staff of a shelter went down to their families. The Tatra mountains were closed down by the communist authorities so that nobody would pass through borders. On Christmas Eve I was the only person to be in the valley situated the highest. I was accompanied by members of the shelter: a dog and a half-wild cat.
I also saw the way of celebrating Advent and Christmas in capitalism. In the USA they are marked by a consumption and commerce calendar. It begins on November Black Friday with an invasion into shops at 5 a.m. where one is seduced by Christmas discount. It is ended with garbage trucks, which only on 26 December pick up Christmas trees from homes. The end of Christmas time! Decorations are changed into the New Year ones, like in shops.
So, we should guard our freedom of celebrating Advent and Christmas according to the Polish tradition. Its exceptional beauty is seen the stronger, the further we are from our Homeland.