Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas Traditions and Decorations of My Ancestors

After reading Randy's excerpt from his great grandmother's journal for Christmas 1929, I got to thinking again about how my own great grandparents might have celebrated Christmas. In my case, only one set of my great grandparents would have celebrated any of their Christmases in America. The other three sets of my great grandparents lived their lives in Poland. I'll look again at Christmas traditions mentioned in The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont for reference on celebrations in rural Poland in the late 1800s and then touch on something I learned this past weekend about how my great grandparents who immigrated to America might have decorated their home for Christmas.
...In all the huts they were busy making bread, especially the strucle, or wheaten bread, with poppy-seed-sprinkled crust; and this seed was also being pounded in mortars for other much-liked dainties.

Yes, Yule-tide was at hand; the feast of the Divine Child, the joyful day of wondrous goodwill to men; the blessed respite from the long never-ending round of labor, to arouse the souls of men from their wintry torpor, and shake off the grey dullness of everyday life, and make them go forward joyfully and with a glad thrill of the heart, to meet the day of our Lord's Nativity.

They all were very busy inside the cabin. Yuzka, humming a tune, was cutting out of colored paper some of those curious figures which they stick for decoration either on the beams or on the picture-frames, making them look as if painted in brilliant colors. Yagna, her sleeves turned up almost to her shoulders, was kneading in the trough with her mother's aid; now preparing the long strucle, and loaves of the finest four (she was hurrying, for the dough had already risen, and she had to fashion the loaves instantly); now casting an eye on Yuzka's work; now seeing to the honey-and-cheese-cakes, that were rising under warm coverings, and awaiting their turn for the baking-oven; and now flying round to where the fire roared up the chimney.
This excerpt is from the Christmas Eve day preparations described in Reymont's book. The "strucle" referred to is what we would now recognize as a poppyseed roll. Poppyseed filled and garnished pastries were a favorite among Poles and I remember my mother making both poppyseed and nut rolls at Christmas time. The honey and cheese cakes referred to must have been a pastry of some sort but no specific one stands out in my mind. I'll have to consult with my favorite Polish baker about this.

There is no mention made of having a Christmas tree in their homes but later in the chapter, Reymont mentions decorated trees in the church during midnight Mass on Christmas. What is mentioned in the way of home decoration is the colored paper cut outs called "Wycinanki" (though he doesn't use that term). I have one of these on the wall in my family room. Here's a picture of it.

It's also interesting to note Reymont's understanding and acknowledgment of the drudgery of everyday peasant life and how welcomed a holiday respite was for the people. I wouldn't say my life is full of drudgery but I do appreciate having Christmas Day as a day of respite ;-)

And now a quick note about some observations I made on Sunday. I went to Greenfield Village in Dearborn and did the walking tour of the village homes decorated with period decorations. For the most part it was what I'd expected to see, trees with homemade and paper ornaments, strings of popcorn or colored paper rings, and candles instead of strings of electric lights. It wasn't until I got home and was looking at the photos I'd taken that I that I made a couple of observations: 1) most of the Christmas trees were not full-sized trees but rather what we think of as table-top trees; and 2) all but one of the homes (Orville and Wilbur Wright's home) had their tree set up in the middle of the parlor... didn't need to be near a wall outlet and could be viewed from all areas of the room. It really set the small trees off and made them the focal point of the room. If you're interested in seeing photos of the period Christmas trees I photographed, I've uploaded them to my online photo gallery. I invite you to check them out.

(Click to view larger image)

This little happy-faced sun brightens my tree every year. It's made of glass, in Poland, and I picked it up up at an after-Christmas sale at a gift shop. Even on a cloudy, gloomy day I can look at this ornament and feel happy :-)