Jan/Feb 2008 Nonfiction

My Christmas Celebrations on Three Continents

by Monika Lange

Photo by Steve Wing

Europe (Poland)

As long as I can remember, we always celebrated Christmas in my parents' home in Warsaw. St. Nicholas Day, the sixth of December, marked the beginning of Christmas season. Nicholas is called Mikolaj in Polish (pronounced Mickowhy), and the 6th of December is known as Mikolajki. On the night of December fifth, I would hang my knee-high sock by my bed for dwarfs to fill it with candy and small gifts. Once I got older, as a true daughter of an economist, I figured out that I'd benefit more, if I hung up my pantyhose instead!

From the six of December celebrations started at school with plays and shows, poetry recitations, and students decorating classrooms and halls.

Arranging Christmas holidays in Communist Poland required lots of work and initiative. To procure meat, fish, or with a dose of some luck, perhaps even a kilogram of oranges, the government "tossed" in stores for the holidays, our housekeeper took her place in line already at 5am. Fortunately, those years I lived far removed from the mundane world, busy with my magical childhood kingdom. In this enchanting bubble, during the night preceding Christmas Eve, dwarfs came and decorated my tree. On the morning of Christmas Eve, dressed in my pajamas I scampered to the big room; it smelled of forest, while glass Christmas ornaments of all colors made the tree glow with magic.

Christmas Eve itself belonged to even more enchanted moments. First, I accompanied my mom as she drove our car along snow-blanketed streets to pick up Granny from church. Streets were covered with snow. Icicles blinked in the street lamps' light. Snow squeaked under winter boots, as people spilled out of the round Lutheran Minster. I could hardly wait for the arrival of Mikolaj, as we called Santa Clause. The world seemed like what my favorite poet, Konstanty I. Galczynski, had described, "An enchanted car, enchanted streets, an enchanted Mikolaj..."

At home smells of spices and Granny's baking wafted in the air—a poppy seed cake with crumbs, an apple or a plum pie, and the ginger bread cookies that had no equals not only in Warsaw, but also in the whole of Poland. On the stove simmered mushroom soup for me, red borsch with dumplings for other family members, and a carp, the fish often obtained with difficulty and which I hated. One such carp came to life after we brought it from the store, and to my sheer horror, it started jumping on the kitchen floor!

An appetizer of fish in jelly, and a vegetable salad with mayonnaise waited in the refrigerator, while a bowl with "makielki," a desert made of poppy seed, raisins, nuts, and chunks of sweet challah, stood on the kitchen counter, covered with a clean towel.

At last the doorbell chimed. My cheeks pink in anticipation, I raced to the door, calling, "Who is there?"

"Mikolaj," answered a low voice.

Weird, but this Santa Claus dressed in a thick fur coat sounded just like our housekeeper. However, I pretended I didn't suspect anything, just in case. Because, if I were mistaken, I'd hurt Mikolaj's feelings and he wouldn't come next year!

In the evenings our housekeeper worked in the cloakroom of the National Theatre. This, she felt, entitled her to have a strong bond with acting and to treat her Santa Claus "role" very seriously. When I eventually stopped believing in Santa, I disappointed her greatly.

I think it must have been during Edward Gierek's times, when electric Christmas lights first appeared on the market. Gierek had become party first secretary toward the end of 1970. With his economic reform and a program to modernize industry, the standard of living increased markedly in Poland of the 1970s. What joy it was to decorate the tree with a string of electric lights! How lovely it looked illuminated by colored bulbs instead of candles. But besides the aesthetics, something else was important, the something I never thought about as a child—the fire danger. Lit candles on tree branches, especially when the tree dried a little after a few days in a warm apartment, had caused many fires. I heard our Christmas tree also caught fire one year. Fortunately, I didn’t remember it. But I recalled, or perhaps I thought I could remember the story I heard many times, dating to one of my early Christmases. Fascinated by the sparkling ornaments, I had grabbed a glass bird from the tree. Before any adult noticed, I ran with the decoration, tripped, squeezed my hand while falling, and crushed the bird, cutting my hand.

When I grew up, Mikolaj stopped visiting. My father was dead by then, but my mother and I still celebrated Christmas in the company of family and friends. On Christmas Eve, Mother's single friends dropped by, and I invited my friend whose family didn't celebrate Christmas. She now lives in the U.S. and celebrates Christmas with a Christmas tree, gifts, and traditional Polish cooking. Because we live too far away from each other, we can't celebrate together, but we always exchange phone calls and gifts.


Asia (Iran)

Iran became my next stop in life. Before the Islamic revolution, Tehran's boutiques and big department stores welcomed Christmas with decorated for the holidays display windows. You could find any item or food product necessary for Christmas celebration. I found it surprising, especially just after my arrival from Poland, where the economy began to falter again and we had food shortages, and also because Iran was a Muslim country.

Naturally, I wanted to have a Christmas tree in Iran, too. The family of my Iranian husband was thrilled. We bought and decorated a fir tree. The tree had roots so that we could later plant it in the yard. Since there were already a few small children in the family, I thought Christmas celebrations were even more important. I got gifts for everyone. Most, of course, for the kids. As a new wife, I didn't know how to cook, and my mother-in-law prepared Christmas dinner. We had saffron rice cooked with fragrant herbs to go with the famous Caspian white fish (mahi sefid), tomato and cucumber salad, yogurt with mint, and a chicken-vegetable salad with mayonnaise. My husband baked a turkey. Mother-in-law also made ground meat shish kebabs, the children's favorite dish. For desert we served a basket full of fruit, pistachio nuts, baklava, and from the local confectioner's shop éclairs with white or chocolate frosting and Napoleon pastries. We didn't forget about alcoholic beverages. My sister-in-law brought a gallon of Scotch. My husband donned a black velour suit from France and was just about to fix "Santa's" beard from absorbent cotton when the children arrived. I'll never forget their enchantment at the sight of the Christmas tree. The whole bunch lifted their dark, curly heads and watched the tree as if it were the eight wonder of the world. A few seconds later came the inevitable question, "So where is this Santa Claus you've told us about?"

We planned to have dinner first but it was obvious the children couldn't wait for Santa, or Baba Noel as he's called in Iran. Meanwhile, my husband struggled with the fake beard. We decided to forgo the imitation since he already had his own, real beard, and the loaded with gifts Santa arrived. Children tore at the colorful wrappings, pulled out their gifts with cries and squeals of delight, and began to play. Boys crawled pushing their cars and trucks on Persian rugs, and the only girl washed her Barbie in the pink shower.

After dinner they resumed their play. The tired three-year-old crouched in a corner. "Monika, why Baba Noel looked like my uncle?" she asked in a sleepy voice.

"Really? I haven't noticed it," I said quickly.

Later on, whenever my husband's niece saw a photo of him in a black velvet suit, she cried out happily, "Oh, Baba Noel!"

In the years following the Islamic revolution, I didn't give up Christmas celebrations, even though it was more difficult and sometimes even dangerous. Revolutionary Guards could search your home, arrest women without hijab, and administer 30 lashes to people drinking alcohol. Sometimes they were known to invade homes just out of spite. But more children were born in the family, and I wanted to introduce the new arrivals to Christmas celebrations. Luckily, I never had any problems and in 1983 I celebrated the last Christmas in Tehran.

Often, my husband and I went with for a Christmas celebration at the Polish Embassy. I also had a few American and English friends from the school where we taught English. Despite the post revolutionary difficulties, we took turns giving Christmas parties in the homes we shared with our Iranian husbands, and often also with their parents, siblings, and cousins. Dancing and listening to music was forbidden at the time. Despite that, behind closed curtains we danced to quiet tunes in celebration of Christmas and the upcoming New Year.


North America (The United States)

My daughter, Anahita, was born in Tehran in May 1984. We named her after an ancient Persian goddess, known by the Romans as Venus of the East. Anahita spent her first Christmas in Warsaw. In a children's department store, I took a picture of her sitting on Mikolaj's lap. She looks a bit uncertain in that photo. I think she was afraid of the white-bearded stranger.

All the consecutive Christmas holidays we spent in the U.S. Despite the fact that working people get only one day off, preparations for Christmas start much earlier, and are marked by many sales. I think that commercialism and advertisements of Christmas in America don't have equals anywhere in the World. Stores decorated for Christmas, the sounds of Christmas carols on the streets and inside shopping Malls, colored lights, gigantic Christmas trees in city centers, people dressed as Santa Claus standing at street corners­they all make a great impression not only on adults, but particularly on children.

At the beginning, we lived in Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York City. I put up an artificial Christmas tree already in early December and I could hardly take it down on January 6, the Three Kings Day, since Anahita wanted a Christmas tree at home all year round. She loved the Christmas atmosphere of giving, receiving, kindness, and friendship. I had to read her stories about Santa Claus. She sang Christmas songs and never tired of watching countless movies, cartoons, and children's shows about Christmas and Santa Claus.

"Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer," a creation of Bob May, the Chicago Montgomery Wards employee was her favorite. In fact, his life's story is a real Christmas story. Mr. May's wife was dying of cancer, he had no money, and a fairy-tale was the only Christmas gift he could give his four-year-old daughter, Barbara. So when Barbara slept, he wrote a book about Rudolph, a young reindeer ridiculed by everyone because of his red, shiny nose. One Christmas night, a thick fog made it impossible for Santa Claus to distribute gifts. Then he asked Rudolph to cast light with his nose and lead the way. Thanks to Rudolph, Santa's sled landed safely on all roofs, and children found gifts on Christmas morning. Rudolph gained fame and respect. Thus started the traditional tale that Santa Claus lives on the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, his flock of reindeer, and his helper elves. During the year, the little men make toys for Santa Claus to deliver to children for Christmas.

Bob May read his poem to his coworkers from Montgomery Wards during the 1938 Christmas party. It was an instant hit. Before 1947, 6 million books about Rudolph, The Red Nose Reindeer were sold, and the famed reindeer took a permanent place among Christmas legends. The poem about Rudolph has been turned into a song and the yarn made into a cartoon. Bob May's success and his rags to riches story are for me a typical example of an American dream.

For Christmas, we went to my brother's house on Long Island. A large Christmas tree fragrant with smells of forest greeted us in the living room. Decorating it became a joined venture. Everybody took part in placing ornaments—my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, my niece, and I with the little Ana. I was moved to I discover my brother and his wife had saved a tinfoil chain and a star I had once made when visiting them years before. The star needed a small rejuvenating job but after a few touches of glue and fresh tinfoil, it looked like new and crowning the tree it sparkled in the light.

According to tradition, Santa Claus arrives in the middle of the night before Christmas to deliver presents. At this time children are asleep. One such night, my sister-in-law, my niece, and I climbed into the attic above the bedrooms. We stomped and clicked our high heels to pretend reindeer on the roof. My nephew, a sound sleeper, slept through our endeavors, but Ana woke up in the morning very excited. "Mommy, Mommy, last night I heard Santa's sled and reindeer on the roof," she cried, running to the window. "Look, I can see hoof prints in the snow!" she pointed at marks made in the fresh snow probably by a bird.

On Christmas Eve we had a light supper and gathered in the living room to munch on cheese and crackers, drinking wine or other alcoholic drink such as Scotch, or Bailey's Irish cream. My brother lit the fire in the fireplace. Friends came by. In such manner we partied till midnight or later, but not too late since we knew the kids would be up already at six am to check if Santa has come at night. On Christmas morning, we, the adults, dragged ourselves out of beds before eight and still sleepy, we came downstairs in our pajamas and bathrobes. The children were already waiting by the Christmas tree and looking at colorful gifts with longing. Stockings with the name of each inhabitant hang from the mantelpiece. In front of the fireplace stood a glass of milk and a plate with cookies for Santa and a carrot for reindeer, everything prepared by the children before they went to bed. It seemed Santa has come though the chimney and had a snack, as the milk was half gone and cookies and the carrot half eaten!

We began from stockings and the candy stuffed into them. Toothpaste and toothbrushes Santa had also included landed at the bottom. Then we started to open presents, a ritual that took until noontime. Late afternoon the turkey was finally ready and we sat down to dinner. The traditional turkey sat in the middle of a large platter, surrounded by corn and sweet potatoes—the food of the pioneers. We also had salad, green beans, green peas, cranberry sauce and gravy, and mashed potatoes with garlic (in later years a specialty of my nephew who as a student, made some extra money working in a hotel's kitchen.) For desert we had pumpkin and pecan pies and sometimes also a Christmas cake.

Next, Christmas traveled with me to Texas, where I moved with my second husband, and then to California. Every year, with never diminishing eagerness, Ana drove with my husband to buy a Christmas tree, which we decorated together. At first I felt a bit strange celebrating Christmas in a place where during the day I wore short sleeves and it never snowed. But I got used to these Christmas celebrations in a different climate very fast. If Ana worried that Santa wouldn't find her in our apartment without a fireplace, she got reassured on the first night, when she saw that the Christmas tree looked as lovely as the ones in her uncle's house New York. Her fears disappeared completely when on Christmas morning she found lots of gifts under the tree and favorite candy in her stocking.

Preparing Christmas dinner was up to me now. I alternated from year to year, baking Ana's beloved turkey or ham, favored by my Chinese husband. Once, thinking of my husband, I made Chinese fried noodle with spinach and shitake mushroom. Since everybody liked the dish, it became the traditional addition to our Christmas dinners. However, baking goods I bought ready from the store.

My mother often visited us in Texas. We then made an additional trout or a tilapia. Since we lived on the university campus, we usually had guests—old friends or newly arrived students of different nationalities. Our guests brought home made dishes; steamed fish with scallion, cooked in wine and soy sauce; beef and broccoli; Velveeta cheese and salsa dip accompanied by corn chips; spicy Mexican chili, or cakes and pastries. Irish coffee was the specialty of my friend from Dublin. Once my German friend baked a crumb plum cake very similar to the one my grandmother used to make!

Ana still believed in Santa Claus when we moved to California. On one occasion I overheard her conversation with a friend from Middle School.

"Do you believe in Santa Claus?"

"Well... maybe not anymore."

"What if he hears us and won't bring any gifts this year?"

"Yeah. That's why I think I believe in him."

"Me, too!"

To sum up, I can only add that thanks to human kindness and generosity, the Christmas spirit accompanied me everywhere I went, regardless of the country and its various customs or different backgrounds of my guests.


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