The planning for the Zelasko Family Christmas begins in July. A Saturday in early December is selected. Flights are scheduled, travel arrangements are made and we’ll all hope the weather cooperates. Our daughter-in-law, Cindy, skillfully prepares hand-crafted invitations that the postman will deliver, soon after Halloween. The excitement and reality set in right after Thanksgiving, when we begin to pull it all together.
The tradition began for us on the first Christmas after returning home from our time in the Service. Olga’s parents and other siblings had been gathering but the grandchildren were coming along fast and the group was growing. The first floor of the Amsterdam two family that she grew up in would be the location we would gather for Christmas Eve each year. The apartment had a front room, dining room and an eat-in kitchen. One small bath and three bedrooms. Cramped, but it did lend itself to a closeness that actually felt cozy.
The house was always decorated in the same fashion. The balsam tree in the living room next to the door, had the familiar ornaments from celebrations past. The archway between the rooms was filled with Christmas cards from friends and loved ones now scattered across the miles. The date of the party would eventually move from Christmas Eve to a Saturday early in December, as an accommodation to those of us separated by distance, as we have scattered over the years.
Traditions are an important part of every family holiday. The Zelaskos are no different, with a few exceptions. Ukrainians are not without some pretty unique dishes. I’ve talked about some of them in other stories but Christmas has some of its own.
Pierogi (pir-a-hee-a) is basically ravioli stuffed with either a mixture of potatoes or farmer cheese, smothered in onions then gently sauteed in 2 pounds of butter. I know what you’re thinking, “What in the world is farmer cheese?” No one knows for sure but it is really hard to find. I guess farmers had to make it themselves because it was too expensive for them to buy. Holubtsi (hal-up-chi). Cabbage leaves meticulously packed with ground beef and rice, then laden with tomato sauce. The ever-present keilbasa accompanied by a beet-horseradish sauce, round out our culinary ensemble. Guaranteed to fill the heart and empty the Rolaids bottle.
That’s sort of the basic menu for most Ukrainian holidays. There is one additional morsel that has become a peculiar tradition. Pickled herring. It has always been a holiday treat but our clan added little twist.
I’ve been educated on the whole herring thing. Allow me to explain. I’m not going to be too technical here. Herring are, well, fish. There are two ways, that I know about, to pickle the little aquatic darlings. The processor takes a chunk of the slippery beasts, fillets them and immerses them in sour cream. This produces a lovely consistency, similar to Elmer’s Glue. Now that I think about it, that gives a pretty good assessment of the flavor too. If you are salivating and planning a trip to the market to buy some, you may want to wait. No one in the family seems to prefer that delightful piquancy. Instead, we all prefer our herring in a wine sauce with onions. A large dose of sugar has been added to make it a real palate-pleaser. None of which tames the spongy texture of the fish.
The Zelasko patriarch, Olga’s dad, loved these little guys. As I said, they’ve been around our table as sort of a condiment. We decided on a “herring toast” some time ago to get everyone in on the holiday spirit. We pack ourselves into the kitchen, circling around the bowl of seafood. By this time the aroma has sent the kids under 14 running outside into the December cold, gasping for fresh air. If you are over that age you are gently pressured into selecting a piece for yourself. No cheating allowed by selecting a tiny slice of onionwithout any herring attached. It’s considered somewhere between poor form to opt out of this little ritual, to an outright denial of your Ukrainian heritage. The adults tough it out and fight over who gets the pieces that still have some skin on them. I’m not aware of any significant adverse effects yet but I’d expect the mercury will be affixed in our livers for a long time to come. Anyway, we each take our share and hoist it in the air. A hearty Merry Christmas is exclaimed in unison, quickly followed by some delightful facial contortion. Usually first-timers remark on the taste and are disappointed they may have to wait until next year for a repeat experience.
This next little gem is not a tradition but gets an honorable mention. The evening unfolded in a fairly tame fashion with some games for the little ones and the exchange of gifts. The latter is now a White Elephant gift-swap, always good for a few laughs. Along the way is the various swapping of tales of the past year in everyone’s lives. On this particular occasion, one unsuspecting family member began observing the familial characteristics of their Ukranian heritage. What could go awry doing that? The ensuing considerations included noses, cheek bones, round faces, blonds (I married one, by the way) and then what we like to call a “large cranial capacity”. It is rumored that some family members have actually chosen their spouses based on head size. There seems to have been an attempt by a few to marry in some smaller head sizes to bring the general noggin size down for the next generation. This would eventually give rise to the now infamous “Big Head Contest”. A quest to determine who had the largest noodle. To make things fair, to participate you had to be over 18, thus saving any embarrassment for our younger crowd. A cloth tailor’s tape was procured to accurately govern the contest.
As the measuring ensued amongst the cousins, mostly in their 30s at the time and perhaps encouraged by the wine, a sort of phenomenon occurred. Several of them who may have grown up a bit sensitive or self-conscious about their head sizes, began, instead, to brag – some even prematurely predicting a triumph of epic scale. This physical feature suddenly became a major source of pride. “You think your head is big? Give me that tape, I’ll show you a BIG head.” As the contest continued, victory ensured for one of the cousins, in stepped the Frenchman, nephew Ryan. As his globe came into view, sort of a hush came over the cousins. The moment of truth had arrived. The tale of the tape was over, nephew Ryan was the clear winner. Ryan’s heritage is French, much to the chagrin of our direct Ukrainian descendants. A laurel wreath would have been proper, but alas, none was to be found.
If you enjoy word jumbles, we have a set of wooden blocks that rest on our fireplace mantel spelling out a special holiday message. There ofttimes seems to be the need to move the letters around when nobody is looking. Not the easiest way to play Scrabble. The award for the best-remembered, goes to whoever came up with Cherry Strammis. I’ll let you unjumble that one. I’d like to say that we have a special prize for you if you figure it out, but we don’t.
Olga’s favorite musical is Fiddler on The Roof. The story line takes place around 1905 in the fictional Russian village of Anatevka, during a time of Jewish persecution. The plot revolves around Tevye, a poor milkman, and his three daughters who all want to marry for love. Not only do they not want to use a Matchmaker but choose men for husbands that were outside of their faith. The prologue is a song called Tradition.
The opening lines, sung by Tevye, are simple but set the stage for the entire play:
The cast joins in the song from each of their own, personal perspectives: His wife, daughters, sons and the Matchmaker, each in their turn elaborating on what they wanted Tradition to look like.
Tradition is not merely a routine or ritual to be performed. Tevye saw Tradition as something unchangeable. A hard, fast rule that couldn’t be changed, not even for love. Traditions are so much more. They don’t stand alone but rather as reminders of love in a family. They prompt us to remember what binds us together. It may look different to each of us but what remains important is that we establish them in our families.
They may seem a small and possibly unimportant part of life. But, their significance transcends time. They become part of the fabric that binds our families together.