Wigilia

stargif

First published Dec. 24, 2007.

Christmas Eve is the most wonderful night of the year to a Polish Catholic and when I walked to the local Polish grocery store yesterday morning, the place was packed with people waiting to pick up meat at the butcher’s counter for their Christmas Eve dinner.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve is a meatless meal, with twelve courses – one for each month of the year. But there was plenty of kielbasa for Christmas Day, wrapped up in brown butcher’s paper for the trip home.

“I’m new to the neighborhood. Is there a Midnight Mass anywhere?” I asked the woman standing in line ahead of me. (She looked just like Aunt Agnes, my godmother.)

“I don’t know, I don’t live here,” she said apologetically. “I just come here for the kielbasa.”

Watching those Polish faces in the store brought back memories of Christmas Eves past at my grandmother’s house on Terrace Street. The Polish Christmas Eve is called Wigilia (meaning “the vigil”) and it’s aptly named. I remember being such a hungry little kid and waiting and waiting and waiting, because you can’t eat until the first star (Gwiazdka, in honor of the Star of Bethlehem) comes out.

The smell of herring made me gag; the only fish I could stomach were the Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, and I’d load up the plate with those and my grandmother’s mashed potatoes – they had just the right amount of lumps, beaten with sour cream and ground black pepper. I also liked the golumpki, a stuffed cabbage roll. We kids would wash it all down with Javies Cream Soda or Black Cherry Wishniak, while our parents drank beer and whiskey in the kitchen.

Later, after we’d all eaten, my Aunt Connie would pass around pieces of oplatek, or blessed bread – literally, “angel bread.” It’s a thin, starchy sheet like communion wafers, about the size of an index card and embossed with Nativity scenes. The tradition is to offer it to each member of the family and as they break off a piece, you wish them good health and happiness: Na szczescie, na zdrowie z Wigilia! (In Polish, if you know it. My siblings and I didn’t speak Polish, except for useful phrases like “Do you speak Polish?” “You’re such a pig!” and “What do you think I am, a horse?”)

And the person who accepts the bread wishes you the same. It’s a lovely moment.

Anyway, you all have your own traditions, and I hope they bring you joy. And tonight, as the first star rises in the sky, know that I offer you all a piece of oplatek, wishing you good health and happiness this Christmas Eve, and may a bright star shine over your home.

Niech zawsze nad naszym domem swieci zota gwiazda!

Hey! Unto you a child is born!

First published on Christmas Eve, 2010.

But as far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman – sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham. When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord – Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us everywhere: ‘Hey! Unto you a child is born!’

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” – Barbara Robinson

Here is how this book begins: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” These truly nasty kids bully their way into the lead roles in a church Christmas pageant to get free hot chocolate and cookies, but by the end of the book, their unexpected Christmas spirit has us in tears.

What can I say? I’m such a sucker for a redemption story. Whether it’s Scrooge, the Herdmans, George Bailey, the Grinch, little Susan Walker – or me, I just can’t resist the story of someone who once was blind, but now they see.

This is what I wish for all of you this Christmas: To see, to fly above the despair. To understand why Christmas resonates throughout the world, even in places where they don’t especially care (or even believe) that Jesus was born in a stable.
Continue reading “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

An Advent adventure

advent

A seasonal rerun.

I so miss the columns Anne Lamott used to write for Salon; they got me through some of the roughest times of my life. (How can you not love someone who refers to herself as a “cursing Christian”?) This year, though, I’ve been thinking about someone I know who is in real trouble over his addictions and is going to go to prison. He’s now in a 12-step program and is shocked and somewhat relieved to discover the world is full of damaged people just like him. So I was reminded me of this, an excerpt from one of my favorite columns. I hope it gets to someone who needs it:

So I called my Jesuit friend, Tom, who is a hopeless alcoholic of the worst sort, sober now for 22 years, someone who sometimes gets fat and wants to hang himself, so I trust him. I said, “Tell me a story about Advent. Tell me about people getting well.”

He thought for a while. Then he said, “OK.”

In 1976, when he first got sober, he was living in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, going to the very hip AA meetings there, where there were no fluorescent lights and not too much clapping — or that yahoo-cowboy-hat-in-the-air enthusiasm that you get in L.A., according to sober friends. And everything was more or less all right in early sobriety, except that he felt utterly insane all the time, filled with hostility and fear and self-contempt.

But I mean, other than that everything was OK. Then he got transferred to Los Angeles in the winter, and he did not know a soul. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “I was afraid to go into entire areas of L.A., because the only places I knew were the bars. So I called the cardinal and asked him for the name of anyone he knew in town who was in AA. And he told me to call this guy Terry.”

Terry, as it turned out, had been sober for five years at that point, so Tom thought he was God. They made arrangements to go to a meeting that night in the back of the Episcopal Cathedral, right in the heart of downtown L.A.

It was Terry’s favorite meeting, full of low-bottom drunks and junkies — people from nearby halfway houses, bikers, jazz musicians. “Plus it’s a men’s stag meeting,” says Tom. “So already I’ve got issues.

“There I am on my first date with this new friend Terry, who turns out to not be real chatty. He’s clumsy and ill at ease, an introvert with no social skills, but the cardinal has heard that he’s also good with newly sober people. He asks me how I am, and after a long moment, I say, ‘I’m just scared,’ and he nods and says gently, ‘That’s right.’

“I don’t know a thing about him, I don’t what sort of things he thinks about or who he votes for, but he takes me to this meeting near skid row,where all these awful looking alkies are hanging out in the yard, waiting for a meeting to start. I’m tense, I’m just staring. It’s a whole bunch of strangers, all of them clearly very damaged — working their way back slowly, but not yet real attractive. The people back in Berkeley AA all seem like David Niven in comparison, and I’m thinking, Who are these people? Why am I here?

“All my scanners are out. It’s all I can do not to bolt.

“Ten minutes before the meeting began, Terry directed me to a long flight of stairs heading up to a windowless, airless room. I started walking up the stairs, with my jaws clenched, muttering to myself tensely just like the guy in front of me, this guy my own age who was stumbling and numb and maybe not yet quite on his first day of sobriety.

“The only things getting me up the stairs are Terry, behind me, pushing me forward every so often, and this conviction I have that this is as bad as it’s ever going to be — that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. Well. All of a sudden, the man in front of me soils himself. I guess his sphincter just relaxes. Shit runs down onto his shoes, but he keeps walking. He doesn’t seem to notice.

“However, I do. I clapped a hand over my mouth and nose, and my eyes bugged out but I couldn’t get out of line because of the crush behind me. And so, holding my breath, I walk into the windowless, airless room.

“Now, this meeting has a greeter, which is a person who stands at the door saying hello. And this one is a biker with a shaved head, a huge gut and a Volga boatman mustache. He gets one whiff of the man with shit on his shoes and throws up all over everything.

“You’ve seen the Edvard Munch painting of the guy on the bridge screaming, right? That’s me. That’s what I look like. But Terry enters the room right behind me. And there’s total pandemonium, no one knows what to do.The man who had soiled himself stumbles forward and plops down in a chair. A fan blows the terrible smells of shit and vomit around the windowless room,and people start smoking just to fill in the spaces in the air. Finally Terry reaches out to the greeter, who had thrown up. He puts his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Wow,” he says. “Looks like you got caught by surprise.” And they both laugh. Right? Terry asks a couple of guys to go with him down the hall to the men’s room, and help this guy get cleaned up. There are towels there, and kitty litter, to absorb various effluvia, because this is a meeting where people show up routinely in pretty bad shape. So while they’re helping the greeter get cleaned up, other people start cleaning up the meeting room. Then Terry approaches the other man.

“My friend,” he says gently, “it looks like you have trouble here.”

The man just nods.

“We’re going to give you a hand,” says Terry.

“So three men from the recovery house next door help him to his feet, walk him to the halfway house and put him in the shower. They wash his clothes and shoes and give him their things to wear while he waits. They give him coffee and dinner, and they give him respect. I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them. No one was pretending he wasn’t covered with shit, but there was a real sense of kinship. And that is what we mean when we talk about grace.

“Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn’t have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.

“For you, Crabby Miss, and for me; together, over time.”