Monday, December 18, 2006

Did My Ancestors Give Gifts at Christmas?

I'm almost done with my Christmas shopping. Every year there seems to be more and more of it to do. Don't get me wrong, I like the shopping. It's the bills and the wrapping I could do without ;-)

As I think back to the ways my ancestors in Poland celebrated Christmas, I can't help but wonder what they did in the way of gift-giving. My first thought was that they made gifts for each other. But in reading The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont I'm left wondering if they even exchanged gifts back then. Was gift-giving even a part of the Christmas holiday?

I know from reading The Peasants and from correspondence with my relatives in Poland that they do not make as big a deal of Christmas as we do here in America. For one thing, Christmas Eve is a solemn day and a day of fast and abstinence. The Wiglia dinner that is a tradition in Polish households is a meatless meal, generally with no cakes or dessert type items. It is not a day of celebration but a day of quiet and somber anticipation and prayer and a day of preparation for Christmas Day. It is not a day of gifts and joy.

Christmas Day is a day of celebration in Poland but my favorite source for information on the life of Polish farmers in the 1800s, The Peasants, gives no mention of gift exchanging on Christmas Day. There is not even a reference to making gifts ahead of time or giving thought to gifts for family and friends. I guess it could have been an intentional omission by the author, but he goes into such detail about so many other celebrations, holidays, and traditions that I find it hard to imagine that he would not even mention anyone getting a Christmas gift of any sort if it was a common tradition. In fact, he paints Christmas as a day of rest from work in the fields, a day spent with family, and a day with a big dinner. And there's church attendance too of course. But that's it.

I have finished three seasons of the book and there is casual mention of gift-giving for other occasions but not for Christmas. For instance, Reymont mentions wedding gifts, baptism gifts, and I'm-sweet-on-you gifts. Evidently women valued red coral bead necklaces even more highly than amber. (In the book one character is envied by the other women in the village because she was given several strands of red coral beads from her husband.) I would have thought amber would have been more valued but perhaps not since it is mined and readily available in Poland. Amber beads are mentioned in the book but not with the reverence of red coral.

So, I guess I'll just have to keep wondering about the gift-giving of my ancestors. Either that or I'll have to spend time doing some online research on the topic. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to do that now. Christmas is coming and I have a pile of gifts to wrap!

(Click image to view larger)

No, this ornament isn't amber. But I wish it was! I bought this ornament several years ago from a favorite department store of mine (Jacobsons) that was going out of business. The ornament appealed to me because it looked like a piece of golden amber. Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a Christmas ornament that was made of amber, or even highlighted with pieces of amber. Hmmm. Maybe I should make one! What a great idea! I have some amber pieces... now all I need is a design and the time to put it together. Stay tuned to see what happens...