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Location: Midwest, United States

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thoughts at Christmas

I am a young boy. My shoes are polished, my pants are pressed, I’m feeling slightly constricted within my starched shirt and tie. My sister sits beside me in her Sunday best. There will be no galumphing, shrieking or tussling this evening. We have declared a truce. We sway slowly from side to side, shoulder to shoulder, softly singing “Silent Night” as we wait for the sun to set. It is Christmas Eve…the most profound night of the year in this boy’s heart.

According to Lithuanian tradition, dinner begins once the first star appears. My sister and I expectantly wait…singing carols as we wait. The house is redolent with a unique scent, a perfume of clove, herring, onions and evergreen. We watch the light slowly fade from the snow-covered earth. The silence and our excitement grow. The night will bring magic. It will be filled with grace. Finally! A star appears and we announce its coming breathlessly.

Christmas Eve is the last day of Advent. According to Old Catholic tradition it is still a day of fasting. Therefore, there will be no meat tonight, no sweets, or candy or wine. The dinner has its own special name: “Kucios.” This will be an intimate family meal, just parents and children. We begin by sharing a blessed, unleavened communion wafer. We break the wafer into four pieces and share each piece with one another. As one breaks a small portion of another’s piece, a wish is proffered…”Do well in school, my son” “May you live to be 100.” Round the table we go, solemnly sharing kisses, heartfelt blessings and dreams.

The table is set with a woven linen tablecloth laid atop a bed of fresh hay. There are twelve dishes. There is a beet broth infused with a unique mushroom (baravykas) found in the sandy forest soil of Lithuania. The baravykas has a unique fragrance and a strong flavor. It tastes of earth. There is herring in all manner of preparation. Herring in cream sauce, herring in a tomato sauce with onions, herring in vinegar with carrots and onions. There are smoked eel and chubs, button mushrooms in sour cream. There’s a simple potato salad, and a unique salad of beets, beans and pickles (vinigretas). There is gefilte pike. The bread is a dark, coarse rye. For dessert, we have a tart cranberry pudding (kiselius), sweetened with poppy seed milk. I suspect these dishes may seem rather odd to you, but this is the simple fare of a Baltic people drawing modest sustenance from the earth and sea. To my parents, it tastes of home. To me, it tastes of my heritage. We do not eat these foods at any other time of year…only at Kucios…and that is what makes the food so very special.

The meal proceeds at a leisurely pace. There is quiet talk; the room hums with love and grace and longing. It is a solemn night. My parents describe the country they left behind (it seems like a Baltic Camelot to me). They speak of parents left and lost, of sacrifice and suffering. They speak of tradition, of Christ’s coming, and all that God’s love means. They will remind me that on this blessed, magic night the animals will speak.

We open presents after the dinner ends and we’ve had a chance to rest. My sister and I can barely contain our excitement. The presents are always modest…a box of watercolors, a book or two, perhaps a sketchpad and colored pencils. Invariably, there are new clothes for each of us that my mother sewed while we were at school. These are simple gifts, for we are a family of meager means, but they are precious and bring great satisfaction.

We always venture forth for midnight Mass. Christmas was never about Santa or reindeer or baubles and tinsel. Christmas meant walking to Church through the crunching snow; hand in hand in the dark of the night, to welcome the Savior. We leave the cold and dark as we open the door to the parish Church. We are greeted by a multitude of worshippers, the aroma of incense, and an altar overflowing with poinsettias. It is a high mass, conducted in Latin. As we sing Adeste Fidelis, I feel hope and peace and good will towards all. My heart soars to the heavens.

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Christmas in the year 2005 A.D. is at hand. I want to flee from the gaudy lights, the crowded malls, the incessant bastardized carols, the plastic Santa’s, the scenes of people being trampled at the entrance of some soulless Wal-Mart. I seek silence and solitude, not the prattle about the “War on Christmas,” the strife and the stress of today’s America. I want to walk through the snow and the cold and the dark…to venture deep into the forest. I want to walk and walk and walk until I can once again find the heart of that young boy. I want to gaze at the stars and feel hope and peace and good will towards all. I want my soul to soar to the heavens, to once again feel only piety and grace. I want to walk as far as my tired legs will take me, until there is just this little boy surrounded by the denizens of the forest. I hope and pray that, just this once, I will be deemed humble enough and worthy enough to hear the animals speak...

Merry Christmas

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Blogger PattiKen said...

And that is my idea of a holy place, a church.

I love the images of your childhood Christmas. The peace and the love, and even the food makes me jealous.

Oh, and the whole Kucios? That's tradition.

Sun Mar 27, 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger PattiKen said...

And by "that" in the comment above, I meant the grove of trees in the picture at the end of your post.

Sun Mar 27, 11:48:00 PM  

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