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Polish Christmas in Washington - 2002-09-04


Christians from many countries around the world now live in the United States, and many of them celebrate Christmas in the traditions of their home country. Today on New American Voices you'll meet Beata and Przemek Klosowski, immigrants from Poland, who will sit down to a traditional Christmas Eve meal as soon as the first star appears in the evening sky.

Christmas Carol Przybiezeli do Betlejem (They Hastened to Bethlehem)

"Christmas Eve is the most important event of Christmas for us."

Beata Klosowski has been in the United States for thirteen years, her husband, Pzemek, for sixteen. Both came as students, he to pursue doctoral studies in physics, she to take a break after college and to see the world. They met at a Polish church function in Washington, married, and when Przemek won a green card in the diversity visa lottery, they decided to stay in the United States. Now they are recreating for their children, eleven-year-old Sofia and three-year-old Jacob, the traditions that they grew up with in Poland.

"We usually sit for Christmas Eve dinner with the first star in the sky, usually around five o'clock. The table is covered with a white cloth, there is some hay underneath, as a symbol of Jesus being born in a manger. Then we have meatless dinner, but we have 12 dishes for the 12 disciples of Jesus, and usually it's dishes of fish, herring, borsch, cabbage with mushrooms, we have some 'kutya', which is rice with honey and poppy seeds and nuts for luck. Christmas Eve dinner we start with holy bread, which is 'oplatek', which is the very thin cake used for the Eucharist. We have it and we break with each other, wishing each other all the best for the next year."

Beata Klosowski says Christmas Eve dinner is a very family-oriented affair, and she is happy that this Christmas her parents have again come from Poland to be with them. But there is another time-honored custom.

"We also set a plate for a stranger at the table, so that if there's anybody in the world that is alone and he or she knocks on the door, he's always welcome here."

A big part of Christmas Eve - especially for the kids - is opening presents.

"We don't wait until Christmas morning, as Americans do, but Santa Claus comes for Christmas Eve, so it's very exciting for the kids. Jacob, he's just starting to realize what is going on, but Sofia, she has celebrated Christmas with us that way since she was born, so she doesn't know any other way."

The Klosowskis have introduced a few American touches to their traditional Polish Christmas Eve. They hang stockings by the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill for the kids. And the Christmas tree is already decorated and standing, and not, as in Poland, brought in surreptitiously - supposedly by angels - on Christmas Eve itself. There is one other difference.

"One very important feature of Christmas Eve is the Christmas Midnight Mass, which in Poland is, you know, at midnight. People have a meal together, and then they go to Midnight Mass, and after Mass we are allowed to rejoice, Christ has been born… Here very few people actually go to the mass at 12, so usually our Midnight Mass is at 9:30, so that's sort of a big difference. But other than that we celebrate it like we would in Poland."

Przemek Klosowski says that it's important for him that his family continue celebrating an Old World Christmas in the New World.

"That's how we were brought up. We came to this country when we were adults, and that's the way we cherish. You know, we celebrate also Thanksgiving the American way, with turkey and sweet potatoes and so on and so forth. So the Thanksgiving dinner is our American half, and the Christmas Eve dinner is our Polish half."

Beata Klosowski says she has no problems following Polish traditions in America.

"It is really easy if you think about practical ways. There are many multi-cultural stores where you can shop. People at work come from different countries, as well, with different backgrounds. And it's just taken for granted that these people are accepted, these people are treated equally with others. Probably there are places where this is not true, you know, we're just talking about this place which is very diverse, Washington and the suburbs."

But for Beata and Przemek Klosowski, as for many people in America, even the happy holiday of Christmas cannot quite avoid the shadow of the events of September 11th.

"I think we will try to keep it as stable as possible, as the same as possible. In the back of our minds September 11 made a big, dark cloud, and it will never go away. Life will never be the same, and I mean it's really sad, because we remember the life from before, but our children don't, and I think they'll never know how it could have been. But as for following the Christmas tradition, it will be the same - just maybe a little bit sadder."

Polish Christmas Carol W Zlobie Lezy (Lying in a Manger)

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