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Christmas traditions nourish the soul

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Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Q I lost the clipping with your Christmas story from several years ago. I enjoyed reading it at this time of year. Can you print it again? — M.M., Greenville

A My husband Patrick and I wish you a merry Christmas and joyful winter holidays. I have written several times about honoring our traditions to nourish our soul. A colleague of mine reminded me of a line from a column I wrote several years ago: “As you make new memories, I hope you will be able to think of old ones with a smile.” I am smiling as I retell my memories of Christmas traditions past. Here are bits and pieces of earlier columns — updated a bit.

Most of us find joy in traditional food feasts. While at times I sound like a “food cop” to many of you, I have spent my career studying how food and food ceremonies nourish the body and soul of people of all cultures. Immigrants to our country often turn to traditional ways of feasting.

Although we have lived in eastern North Carolina since 1983, I often include Polish American traditions in my holiday celebration. When I was a child in Detroit, my family would go to babcia’s (grandmother) house for the Christmas Eve or Wigilia dinner. The entire large Kolasa clan would be there.

The meal would begin with the ceremony of “breaking the bread.” The opłatek Communion-like wafer, imprinted with the Nativity scene, would be shared with everyone at the table. The ceremony was quite solemn and loving at the adult table, and quite rowdy at the kids’ table. All exchanged good wishes. Since this night is considered a vigil, there would always be an empty place at the table with straw under the tablecloth waiting for baby Jesus. As kids, we couldn’t wait until we were old enough to go to midnight Mass and have an early celebratory breakfast.

We have all grown and my brothers and sister have also left Detroit. We married into families with other traditions. The special meatless night of creamed herring, mushroom soup, pierogi and fish and chrust/faworki (light, delicate, angel wing pastries) is a memory. Babcia made the pierogi for the kids because most of us didn’t like eating fish at the time. We skip the pierogi now — they are a lot of work and store-bought ones just aren’t the same.

Each of my siblings has kept some elements of the celebration, though we have not celebrated Christmas in Detroit for many years. None of us is eager to brave the bad weather. We still break the opłatek, no longer purchased from nuns at school (it was a fundraiser for them) but by mail order. Sylvia English, a great local diabetes educator in our community, made sure I had some. Now her daughter, Dr. Suzanne Lazorick, is continuing her mom’s tradition of caring for the well-being of our community and makes sure I have a supply.

The years we travel to Tucson for the holiday, Wigilia is now dinner at the country club. Before his retirement, my brother Dick ensured there was a special Polish dish or two on the fabulous buffet. We don’t eat all day long like we used to. In Polish-American Detroit, Christmas Day was a quiet day reserved for church service followed by visiting. We weren’t allowed to play with the new toy until the 26th.

Christmas was about Jesus, family and friends, and it was mom’s birthday, too. Friends and relatives would drop in for an “open house” where turkey, ham, Polish sausage, rye bread, Christmas babka (coffee cake), eggnog and holiday cookies and special candies were served. My sister and I laugh at how Mom never baked cookies except at Christmas, and then they were too pretty to eat. She carefully decorated Santa cookies with raisins for eyes, red sugar for cheeks, lips and cap and white icing for eyebrows with coconut added for beard.

Each Santa was wrapped and hung on the cookie tree with a red ribbon waiting for each child who visited to carry home their special cookie. When my sis and I are together at Thanksgiving in Georgia, we use the well-worn cutters and bake a few cookies to share the memory.

I clipped an article a few years ago from a Polish American newspaper titled “Holiday traditions could ease modern day tensions.” I think it is true. Time and traditions change for everyone. Some of the change we welcome, some we are slow to accept. Our ancestors ate foods needed for their survival. They often had too much fat (needed for scarce calories) or too much salt (for food preservation). In today’s world, those practices may increase our risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and obesity. We can enjoy those foods, honoring an old family tradition, but find healthier “everyday foods.”

As we move into the New Year, I am hoping that eating healthy will be the norm rather than the exception for more people in our community. But for now, pause to remember a loved one or friend that you are missing this holiday season, enjoy a memory of a special food you shared — with a smile.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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