I Love Hand-me-downs
One of my favorite memories as a little girl is sitting at the kitchen table with my sister, filled with excitement as we watched my mother do Christmas baking. She began early on Christmas Eve morning and baked all the way until 2:00 a.m. It seemed like my sister and I would wait for hours on the first batch of goodies to come out of the oven, but tasting a sample of these extra special baked goods was worth the wait. This is when my little brother would show up. This was the only part of the baking tradition he liked. Sometimes my mother would let us girls help so we could be a part of the holiday fun and learning the process. My grandparents came from Moravia, Czechoslovakia, so there are many ethnic holiday traditions in my family. They handed down their traditions to my mother, and she handed them down to us kids. Of course as a child I took for granted the hard work and the love my mother put into these family traditions. Now looking back, my memories make me appreciate the treasure that she bestowed upon us. In our house, we didn’t bake run-of-the-mill holiday cookies. We baked European style! Baked goods called, Kolaches (co-latch-keys), little pillows of filled dough about 2×2 inch squares, along with sweet rolls called, Bukta (boot-ka), both consisting of sweet prune butter, tasty apricot butter, or sweet ground walnut meats, were a must for Christmas. These rolls are not like bread rolls. Each roll is about twelve inches in length and about five inches wide, and about two inches high. Today they have dough mixers, but my mom would knead the dough by hand over and over and over again until it was smooth, staying to her tradition, the same way she stayed to Christmas Eve super tradition.
Christmas Eve super always consisted of lentil soup, tossed salad, boiled potatoes, broiled fish, and boiled fruits of figs and prunes. Before eating the meal, everyone was given a thin slice of wafer called Oplatki (o-plat-key). It was 6×3 wide and barely one-sixteenth inch thick. Breaking off small pieces of the wafer, and passing it to every person sitting at the table assures all who partake, safety for their future, never to lose their way in life. I believe this tradition has helped me to step out in life with courage to succeed. Czechs are the only ones who practice this tradition of wafers. The Russians serve a “Twelve Dish Christmas Eve Supper,” consisting of twelve entrees. The Italians celebrate, “La Vigilia Di Natale, The Eve of Seven Fishes,” along with other entrees. The Polish celebrate, “Wigilia,” a “meatless Christmas Eve meal, also known as the Star Supper, which doesn’t begin until the first star appears in the sky. Smoked salmon, caviar, pickled beets, mushrooms and other vegetables are served.”There is a great influence of mixed ethnic traditions in my community, because where I live is where many of the European immigrants settled after they arrived in New York City during the 1800 and 1900’s.
The immigrants, who settled here in America, made their way to many of the surrounding areas where they could find work and make a decent living. Endicott-Johnson and IBM had plenty of work for them. My community is where many of Italians, Russians, Czechoslovakians, and Polish people, settled down to work in the factories. Grape vineyards for homemade wine, and small cafes serving Italian pasta dishes, helped to structure the community. Other contributors to the community were the Russian, Czechs, and Polish, who brought their fine cuisine and their practice of homemade beer, which became very popular, and still is. My mother used to tell us kids stories of our grandfather and the way he would make beer in the basement of their house. Having eight brothers and sister, they made it a family affair, mostly capping the bottles tight. Many of my uncles had smoke houses where they would hang sides of fresh bacon or ham until it was cured. They also made their own stuffed sausage, called Kielbasa (Keel-basa), and horseradish. You will always find the Catholic churches selling ethnic baked goods, crafts, and arts, at their Bazaars held for fundraisers. They also sell homemade, home grown foods for take-out dinners during other holiday celebrations.
It’s the Catholic churches who still help keep these wonderful traditions going on. Catholicism is the preferred faith of these nationalities. The American church has preserved much of the European home-church experience of ethnicity, from the architectural structure of the high domed ceiling, splashed with paintings of angels and clouds, to the sacred statues of the Holy Saints, especially the Mother of Jesus, Mary, and his father Joseph. Beautiful stained glass icon paintings of the twelve Stations of the Cross, Jesus’ journey to Calvary, line the church walls on each side. Urns filled with holy water are located at the front and back entrances of the church for the petitioners to dip in with their finger, and make the sigh of the cross as they enter the sanctuary. The sacred challis that is located in the front is closed tightly within a little tabernacle and can only be handled by the holy Priest. All others are forbidden. When I was a child I really believed that God and Jesus lived in the little tabernacle located on the mantel behind the front podium. I also believed that the Catholic holy water could kill vampires; this from watching monster film festivals. I loved to recite the rosary beads, which is a practice of repetitive prayers. The rosary looks similar to a long necklace with a crucifix pendant. Each bead represents a prayer that you speak as you move around the necklace and back to the crucifix where you began.
Czechoslovakian beautifully designed egg art, originated at the Monasteries made by the Catholic Monks in Rome Italy. Hand sketched goose eggs are the choice in Czechoslovakia, but in the Western World, the use of chicken eggs is very popular. The yolks of the eggs are delicately drained from the egg by inserting a hole at the top and bottom. They are then dipped by hand in lacquer or acrylic paint in a variety of brilliant colors of red, purple, green, pink, even black, and much more. After they are dried, they are dipped in colored wax, sealing the holes. After the wax is dried, amazing designs and pictures can be carefully etched out on the egg with fine, sharp tools, done by a very skilled hand. Different materials including bee’s wax, straw, watercolors, onion peels, stickers are used to decorate the eggs. As a part of the tradition in Czechoslovakia, on Easter Monday young girls give their decorated Easter eggs to the boy of their crush. Today, during the Easter season, the Catholic churches will make and sell these painted eggs, along with the Kolaches, nut roll, lekvar roll, poppy seed roll, and apricot rolls. We used try to collect these pieces of egg art, but they were expensive and hard to find because they sell out quickly. However, my grandfather worked the craft so we had several to keep.
The Catholic religion has another tradition. The day before Easter Sunday, the parishioners fill a basket with these baked goods, cheeses, eggs, meats, salts, and wine. They bring these amazing decorated baskets to the altar overflowing with goodies. Beautiful colored bows are tied to the handles with embroidered cloths to cover the contents inside. Each of the food pieces represents something. Some also put candy in the baskets. The hard-cooked eggs symbolize new life or Christ rising from his tomb. Bread represents the bread of life given by God. Meat and sausages are symbols of the resurrected Christ, horseradish represents accepting the bitter with the sweet in life, and vinegar symbolizes the sour wine given to Jesus on the cross. Salt is to add zest to life and preserve us from corruption, and sweets suggest the promise of eternal life or good things to come. There is a noon mass, and the baskets are lined up at the altar. It’s quite a sight to see. The Priest comes out and blesses the baskets with Holy Water, says a prayer, and tells a story about the tradition of the food baskets. The story is about the beginning of this Catholic tradition. The people would bring their food in baskets to the church to be blessed because they had been fasting in honor of the Easter celebration. The Priest had to make the foods holy by praying over the baskets and blessing them with holy water before it was eaten. Today, many of the parishioners fast the entire day and night before Easter Sunday, then eat their basket of food at home after the morning mass.
The Catholic Churches keep the tradition by honoring Moravian Day. Those in the congregation participate with attire, the clothing worn by the men and women who live in Czechoslovakia. Usually after the church mass, they will have a luncheon buffet and the dancers will perform for those who attend the luncheon. Czech/Moravian traditional costumes are beautifully embroidered, and consist of quite the get-up. For the women, bloomers, undershirt, white blouse with flouncy sleeves and vest, layers of petticoats, full red shirt, apron, belt, black boots, and accessories are brightly displayed, including a colorful head scarf. Men dress in black pants, boots, embroidered vests, a decorative belt, and a black hat with a red scarf hat band. These days, it’s rare to find a Moravian Club or Organization where these ethnic traditions can be carried out. In these Czechoslovakia, or Moravian Clubs, not only ethnic dress and good dancing is involved, but lots of good Czechoslovakia Moravian food.
Haluski is a Polish and Slovakian dish of origin. Haluski is made with fried noodles and sweet cabbage, butter, onion, and salt to taste. Klobasy, a polish type of seasoned sausage, can also be added to the dish to make heartier meal. Perogies are a type of boiled dough resembling the size of raviolis, filled with cheese or mashed potatoes, and fried in caramelized onions with butter. Some people use olive oil instead. I still use the standard butter for my Haluski and Perogies. The taste is too wonderful to not do so. Globs of sour cream on the top of the fried Perogies give them that extra flavor. Halupki is also another very popular food. A head of cabbage is boiled to tender. While it cools, a pound or more of beef, pork, or veal, and egg, is mixed in a bowl with cooked white rice, seasoning of choice, to taste. Take the leaves of cabbage one by one, fill with the meat mixture and roll it tightly to resemble a pillow. Lay it in a very large baking pan, one on top of the other. Continue with this pattern until the cabbage is used up. Then pour tomatoes sauce generously over the stuffed cabbage. Lay a few bacon strips on the top of the cabbages and then bake about an hour. I’ve learned to spice-up my Halupki by using a thicker tomato paste, with extra seasoning, and use bacon stripes also between the layers of the stuffed cabbage. I must confess that I have never made the hand sketched eggs, nor have I learned the Moravian dance, but I can bake the traditional baked goods and meal dishes. I’m glad to have been able to experience the wonderful traditions of my ethnic roots. I can only hope that the generations to follow will carry on.