When I think about childhood Christmases the main thing I usually remember is Christmas Eve. It has always been a big deal in our family as we have Polish heritage and follow the Polish tradition of Wigilia.
Unlike most of our friends who put their tree up early in December, my parents’ tree never went up until Christmas Eve. I was usually in charge of decorating it whilst my Mum and brother, when he was old enough, set to in the kitchen. They would be preparing a feast of 12 dishes that we would all sit down to in the early evening. I believe it’s 12 to represent both the months of the year and the 12 disciples.
It was like a cooking marathon, beginning after breakfast and continuing all day, getting more intense as the time went on.
After I had finished the tree, I would set the table and then chop veg or arrange food on platters. I was mainly in charge of making things look nice including turning tomatoes into lily-flowers as decoration (it was the late 80’s/ early 90’s after all!).
We would normally have guests arriving to join us and stress levels would rise as the time grew nearer and dishes remained incomplete. My mum would be heard counting and re-counting the dishes, getting a different figure every time and gradually getting more heated and European. My Dad would usually disappear to “wrap presents” (hide from everyone shouting at each other in the now hot and cluttered kitchen).
I can remember the feeling of anticipation and excitement that bubbled in my tummy as we all took turns to man the pans while the others changed into smart clothes. There was a real sense of occasion.
Weirdly, the guests were always Grizzly, his Mum and his Gran as our Mums were friends long before we were a couple. It’s nice to think that the Wigilia tradition is just as much a part of his life as it is mine.
It is also part of the tradition to set an extra place, in case somebody calls unexpectedly and is in need of food. Nobody ever has called but I can remember the mystery of wondering if they would and concocting far-fetched tales of whom it might be and what events may possibly have led them to our door.
When the food is ready, a wafer called Opłatek is given out (it’s like the ‘bread’ in church). Everybody has a bit and goes to each person in the room in turn. You swap a piece of your Opłatek for a piece of theirs, eat it and wish one another a Happy Christmas (or Wesołych Świąt if you can manage to say it), often with a kiss on both cheeks. Finally you get to sit down and dig into the feast. The tradition is for a meat-free meal (it’s a day of abstinence) so it is mainly fish dishes.
Afterwards, feeling full and sleepy, we’d move to the living room and chat or play games. Thoughts would turn to Christmas Day and if we were really lucky we might be able to open one present.
All these years on we continue to celebrate Wigilia, though things have changed a bit. We put our tree up a few weeks before Christmas now and even my parents put theirs up a bit earlier than Christmas Eve. I am slightly regretting our keenness this year though as our tree is barely holding up, with the merest nudge sending pine needles cascading all over the floor. It will be a Christmas Miracle if it survives until the Big Day!
This year, Wigilia will be at our house so that the Bears can join in but still get to bed at a reasonable hour and the party can carry on downstairs. I’m not quite so into the cooking until you drop approach and we have managed to persuade my mum over the years to make it easier by sharing the task and cooking simpler recipes. This year she and I will do 6 dishes each, some fish, some veggie.
My Dad, Grizzly and the Bears will probably go out somewhere while we cook. I’ve realised in writing this that so far I haven’t involved them much with preparing for Wigilia and maybe I need to find ways of making the tradition more interesting for them. I have chosen a colour-in table cloth this year though, in the hope that it will entice them to sit at the table a bit longer!
The guests are pretty much the same as ever though it is a bit much for Grizzly’s gran now and she will join us for Christmas lunch instead. My brother’s girlfriend will be joining us too. This year everybody is going to sleep over. It is going to be a squash with 5 extra people and no doubt a bit mad but that’s all part of the Christmas fun. I think. Isn’t it? I’ll tell you afterwards…
Last year on the lead up to Christmas I was very much in survival mode. We were about 4 months into the adoption and everything was feeling very difficult. I think I fulfilled the minimum requirements of Christmas but not with much festive cheer. I do remember wondering what Little Bear had experienced before though. What traditions did his birth family or foster carers have? I had no idea and felt a bit unsettled by it. I had enough resolve in me to want to start a new tradition for Little Bear. I very much wanted him to become a part of our long-standing traditions but at the same time I wanted there to be something that had begun with him, something that he wouldn’t be excluded from if we started reminiscing about Christmases past.
I know a lot of people who get new pyjamas on Christmas Eve and I decided to steal that tradition for us. I liked the idea of there being something for the boys to unwrap after our big meal, which, let’s face it, is more for the grown-ups and also, surely anything that makes them keener to go to bed had to be a good idea?!
I knew which pyjamas to get for Little Bear as soon as I saw them. They were Gruffalo ones, with stripy legs and best of all, they came with a pair of matching slipper socks. That sounds a little odd but after several months we had finally figured out that Little Bear liked to wear socks in bed, the longer and woollier the better. Yes, you would have thought that somebody would have told us that but alas they had not.
I also chose a little cuddly animal for each Bear and put them in a gift box with their pyjamas. Little Bear absolutely loved his jammies and the little cat was probably his favourite Christmas gift, even though it was tiny. I loved seeing his face when he opened them and I’m excited for this year’s gifts too. Instead of another cuddly toy (Big Bear in particular has hundreds) I’ve got Christmas PJ’s and jumpers for their Build-a-Bear bears. Ok, the new tradition might be a teeny bit for me as well: accessorising small cuddly animals? Err yes please.
A year and 4 months into our adoption, I’m pleased to say that despite the world’s longest school term (which only ended today) and quite a lot of germs, my resilience is much better and my festive spirit is back. I’m not so worried about the chaos and an inevitable meltdown or 3. We’ll just roll with it and possibly lie down in a darkened room afterwards.
Whatever you are getting up to, I hope it’s happy and calm (ish). Merry Christmas, Wesołych Świąt, lots of love from all The Bears xxx