Monday, December 03, 2007

Christmas Eve Feast

One of the things I enjoyed most about Christmas when I was growing up was the plethora of delicious foods at our house. My mom was a terrific cook. I suppose some might say her culinary skills stopped short of gourmet, and they would be right. She was no gourmet cook but she sure knew her way around the kitchen.

My mom was the child of two Polish immigrants who owned a bakery. She learned to cook Polish food which for the most part is quite bland, and "stick to your ribs" sort of stuff. Polish cuisine is not known for its spicy dishes or elegant presentation. It's hearty food meant to satisfy the hearty appetites of the Polish farmers after a long day of work in the fields.

We didn't eat Polish food all the time. In fact, it was generally reserved for special occasions. And that made it special. In our family the big holiday dinner was served on Christmas Eve. My mom would spend days cooking and baking in preparation for the Christmas Eve dinner. It was a big dinner and by that I mean there were many different dishes served… 12 to be exact. Unlike a traditional Polish Wigilia (Christmas Eve in Poland), we always had meat at our holiday dinner.

Our usual Christmas Eve dinner was a blended Polish and American affair including a Turkey stuffed with sage dressing, pierogi (potato and sauerkraut), kielbasa (both fresh and smoked), sweet potatoes, jellied-in-the-can cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed herring, carrots or corn, and dinner rolls. There would be a toast to begin the meal (wine) and we would all say "nas drowie!" (your health!).

In this photo of Christmas Eve dinner from 1979, I can see platters of ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, jellied cranberry sauce, and dinner rolls. The Christmas "picture" in the background was made of Styrofoam and mom displayed some of her Christmas cards around it. Also, notice the gold "wreath" on the other wall. My mom made that with "IBM cards" as they were known back then. All the cards were held together with staples, spray painted with gold paint, and a centerpiece of a bow and some small ornaments was added. We ate this dinner in what was my bedroom when I was a little girl. We also ate some holiday dinners in the basement. My mom is on the left, I'm the one with my head tilted just below the wreath. My ex-husband is the one next to me with the mustache.

Later in the evening we would have dessert. There was always homemade fruitcake which my mom made in October. It was delicious! She would also make a variety of Christmas cookies and sometimes she would pick up a poppy seed roll or a nut roll at the bakery and we would have that too.

And then there was the candy… I always remember a lot of candy at Christmas. Chocolate covered cherries (always in syrup!), Ribbon Candy, Hershey's kisses, and the hard candies that look like raspberries, were staples. Our family was always big on mints too so we would have chocolate covered mints, butter mints, and candy canes as well!

[The Advent calendar number graphic used in this post was created by NicNic at the NBK blog.]


  1. You know that our discussion of Wigilia back in October is what led to this whole advent calendar thing, don't you.

    My godparents were Polish-American (last name Washousky) and I grew up celebrating Wigilia with them. One year it was a very special night for me but I can't reveal why until one of the grab bag posts this month.

    Here's how we celebrated:
    - we placed hay under the table to represent the stable where Jesus was born.
    - my godmother order elaborately printed communion hosts (large cards really) from Bethlehem, PA. We dipped this in honey and it was the first item we ate.
    - there were no salt shakers allowed. Only small dishes and you used your fingers to take a pinch.
    - the bread was unleavened and homemade
    - no meat allowed since Christmas Eve was a HDO.
    - dishes included mushroom soup, sauerkraut soup, pea soup, babalki (little "fingers" of noddles fried and placed in the soups), pierogies, fish and potatoes

    These are great memories for me. Nowadays none of my godparents' children keep the tradition of Wigilia which I really miss.

  2. I haven't had ribbon candy in years but we did always have it when I was little. I'd forgotten that.

    I remember making punch card wreaths in the 70's. We also made trees out out old phone books or, for a smaller tree, out of Readers' Digest magazines. These were also spray painted gold. I wonder if they are up in Mom's attic too?

  3. Your wonderful story really brings back memories. It is difficult to find some of the candies and other food things you mention. I get a Vermont Country Store catalog that carries many of these items if you are looking for them.


  4. Mmmmm, kraut pierogi! I don't think I've had that since I moved out of Michigan. Sure wish I had some right now...

  5. Come on back for a visit T.K. and I'll take you out for some great kraut pierogi! (Michigan has the best outside of Poland ;-)

  6. Jasia

    "Michigan has the best outside of Poland" - them's is fightin' words to someone from Chicago! I'll pass that on to my friend Ted who for years organized A Taste of Polonia here over Labor Day weekends!

  7. I wondered if you'd see that comment, Thomas! LOL!

    I'd put Michigan-made pierogi up against Illinois-made pierogi anytime! :-P