By: Anna Skibska
Audience of the year
I admire tradition – the older/longer, the better. The Christian tradition – is the precious and powerful weapon that has protected us from forgetting who we are, what values we believe and treasure the most. It has been shaping our lives, creating and refining our grand culture for more than two millennia. Christmas has been one of the best known and celebrated events around the world. It transforms this cold December month into a strand of natural mysteries, wonders and unusual activities.
When I think of Advent (adventus arrival)
I imagine advent in an instant: paper thin ginger cookies, garlands of lights, fruit teas, scent of spices, Christmas tree, short days, gorgeous sunrises, spectacular sunsets, blooming amaryllis, Christmas cactus the long wait for presents, morning light of color of white gold, first snow The latter-sometimes), lanterns, thin ice on poodles etc.…
December has never been dark in America. My first Christmas in NYC had taken my breath away. The holiday decorations had appeared just seconds after Thanksgiving, the turkey was replaced by the tree with the American speed. The splendid 5th Avenue looked like a light necklace resting in the jewel box. Monumental Christmas tree decorated with tons of lights, what a delight to the eyes. Beautiful and bigger than in Europe, red poinsettias were everywhere. Silver bells of the Salvation Army were ringing. The big hall of the MET was adorned with magnificent floral arrangements. I was charmed and amazed admiring all the miracles unseen anywhere else – only in America. Every Christmas spent in America is a visual present for me.
The 20th of December was usually the last day of the school and the first day of cooking and baking. All the dishes and cakes must have been made before Christmas Eve supper. Our kitchen was pulsing with hectic and aromatic activities for the next couple days. The Eve itself was mysterious from the beginning to the end. We were fasting on the Eve. In the morning a modest breakfast: cacao and bread for me and fruit tea for my parents was served. It was commonly known that the next special meal – the supper – will be brought by the Bethlehem Star, not by Amazon! We (my friends and I) unsuccessfully try to interview our parents and grown-up neighbors asking about the details of that delivery.
Circa noon all the home activities moved from the kitchen to the living room. A sizable table was covered up with the white, starched tablecloth. A silver tray was the centerpiece. On it some dried blades of grass were collected on the St. John Baptist’s feast day, 24th June, was put on it and covered with elegant white napkins. Symbolizing the manger and hey. On the top of it wafers were placed. At the table there was always one extra seat and plate for the unexpected guest. Everyone must have been invited and well fed on the 24 th.. Our parents, who treated that tradition with seriousness, asked the other neighbors to knock on the door, asking for something like salt or a glass of milk. Children were sent to answer the door, knowing that we have to at first invite the “knocker” to the table. Then we listened to his/her request. It was a great didactic setup.
After setting up the table the children were almost forcibly released into the environment. Our mission was to look for the first star in the sky. That way parents had time to set up the tree. Finally (circa 3pm) the star showed up. We had already turned into the color of the Smurfs. Nobody was bothered by that. We were running back home bringing the breaking news – the (Bethlehem –of course) star is there! The youngest member of the group announced the news. (The youngest ones were appreciated that way). The Christmas tree was in. Beautifully decorated and already lit. The natural scent was slowly spreading throughout the house. We only had to change our attires and sat down at the table. The oldest male figure picked up the wafers, resting on the central place on the table. A short prayer was said over the wafers and us and the wafers were broken with all the participants. (That was a way how the societal hierarchy works). The Gospel was read. The twelve dishes were served – to appreciate every month of the upcoming year. All the dishes were ancient, simple and delicious – bread, mushrooms, grains, fish, roots, butter, oil, etc). The ham was still waiting for the first day of Christmas.
Christmas presents-hide and seek was a ritual part of the long wait. Year after year I checked what kind of presents the future holds for me. I patiently looked through all the secret places where the presents (two gloves, for example – not a present but presents, then) could have been waiting. They were always found, gently opened and … I rapidly closed my eyes. It usually took me a couple days to reconcile with reality. Somehow my daydreams and the presents were not synchronized. Nevertheless, it was important to make my parents feel great by greeting their gifts with a big smile. The rehearsal was a must.
Then presents brought by the Bethlehem Star were re-opened… may silence cover that episode.
When I saw that I thought that I was hallucinating. It was a wall filled up, up to the ceiling with still unwrapped Christmas gifts. A wall…! It was unreal and beautiful and so different from my experience. Therefore, it fascinated me so much. As much as the beautiful American Christmas costume jewelry fascinates me. It would be hard to miss its didactic/traditional aspect.
The supper was pleasantly long. We sang Christmas carols enjoying the evening. My parents told me stories from their childhood. They were forging the next link of the long chain of tradition, now I know that.
The crumbs of the meal were collected and given to the pets. It was said that the crumbs made domestic animals speak with human voices. I have not overheard a word – yet.
At 11pm we went to the church for the Midnight Mass. There was a mass at 10pm for children. But it was a sheer insult for children. Every single one of us wanted to be an adult and to prove it, by attending the mass. Unlike these days when the Midnight Mass starts at 9 pm… O tempora! O mores!
Everyone was also dressed up. It was a lesson of reverence, respect and self-respect. We were heading to greet the King of kings & Lord of lords. It was the Audience of the year! Thus the Midnight Mass ended up the Christmas Eve day & inaugurated the Twelve Days of Christmas.
I hope that my short stories will inspire you to share yours. I hope we will share our grand American tradition with the youngest at the Christmas table – forging the next link of the long chain… We have so much to offer ourselves and others. People have been coming to America from the entire world, haven’t they?
I felt that we have to preserve and pass on the tradition scrupulously with childish seriousness. As if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars depended on it.
Anna Skibska I Written in Seattle I 16th December I 2023 A.D.