My big, fat Polish Christmas

by Jeannine Gramick


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In the romantic comedy film, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a 30-something woman named Toula breaks out of the expectations of her Greek culture to pursue a career outside the family restaurant business. She even falls in love with Ian, a non-ethnic Greek. When Toula announces that she and Ian will marry, her father feels hurt, infuriated and betrayed.

Wanting to be accepted by the family, Ian decides to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. Toula's parents invite the entire family to meet Ian's parents at the restaurant. Unaccustomed to such cultural enthusiasm and energy, Ian's sedate and very reserved parents feel beleaguered. Though the evening is a disaster, the traditional Greek wedding is set and does go smoothly, albeit humorously and riotously with lively Greek dancing at the reception.

Six years later, we see Toula and Ian's daughter complaining that she does not want to go to Greek school. Toula mollifies her with a promise that she can marry whomever she wants when she grows up. As they walk towards Greek school, the audience sees that their home is next door to the Greek restaurant!

During the holidays, I was thinking about this romantic comedy that shows the clash of tradition and newness, the desire to be free of cultural restraints, while maintaining the bonds of closeness that custom creates. For the past several years, I have felt nostalgic for my own Polish roots and the family celebrations I experienced as a child. Christmas Eve was spent at my paternal grandmother's house with my parents, aunts and uncles, and lots of cousins.

For the Wigilia or Christmas Eve dinner, my grandmother prepared the traditional foods many days, or even weeks, in advance. She kneaded and rolled out dough for the pierogi or dumplings, hand-squeezed the cabbage for kapusta (sauerkraut) fillings, boiled potatoes and cooked prunes for more fillings, stuffed golabki (cabbage leaves) with fried buckwheat groats and onion, baked the babka (bread), and much, much more. The Wigilia was then a meatless meal as Christmas Eve was a day of strict fast and abstinence before Vatican II.

Before the meal, everyone received the oplatek, a thin, unleavened, rectangular-shaped wafer, stamped with figures of Christ, Mary, or holy angels. In pairs, one person offered the oplatek to another, who broke off a piece and spoke a wish for the first person for the coming year. This well-wishing and breaking of the oplatek was repeated until everyone had broken the oplatek and offered good wishes for every person at the gathering.

During the meal, a thin layer of hay was placed under a white tablecloth in memory of the Christ child in the manger. An extra place was set at the table for an uninvited guest.

When my grandmother was no longer able to host the celebration, Christmas Eve festivities vanished in my life. Determined to be "Americanized," my parents' generation quickly shed the customs "from the old country." They wanted to escape the stigma of being called "immigrants."

When my grandmother died, the Polish language died out in our family. All my grandparents' children were thoroughly American — no speaking an alien language in their houses. After all, my father and uncles had fought for their country in World War II, hadn't they? Who could say they were foreigners?

I,too, was entrapped in the aura of Americanism. I was not proud, ashamed really, of my Polish heritage. I laughed with others at "dumb Polack" jokes. Although I was never a fan of Pope John Paul II, I was nevertheless pleased at his election. I found myself beginning to respect and feel proud of my Polish heritage. Finally, a brilliant man, esteemed by the world, challenged and laid to rest the stereotype that Poles were stupid.

So when I received an invitation to celebrate Christmas Eve this season with a Polish family, I eagerly accepted. I felt transported back to my roots with the oplatek, kapusta and cheese pieroghi, potato and mushroom soup, krusciki dessert (sugar dusted bow-ties), Polish Christmas carols, and exchange of presents. This year I had a big, fat Polish Christmas!

The Greek romantic comedy film and my own Polish Christmas point out the same difficulties that immigrant families face today: the desire for acceptance into a new situation, a new community, a new country, coupled with the longing to maintain one's cultural heritage. Adaptation involves a struggle within the person to hold onto, and to be proud of, one's roots. Adaptation also involves a struggle against cultural stereotypes, a portrayal of the immigrant as the "other," and a humor about one's cultural identity that can be tactless, rude and even degrading.

Cultural stereotypes involving race, ethnicity, and religion can be subtle or blatant, but they are always insidious. Stereotypes are embedded in the fear of Black people by Caucasians, in the public cry to deport Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S., in the unwillingness to accept families fleeing horrific and brutal violence in the Middle East, and in the rise of Islamophobia after the recent terrorist attacks. Stereotyping blinds us to the goodness in each person.

I believe that today St. Paul would be exhorting us to put aside our stereotypes and fears and welcome the diversity that each person and group brings to the whole community. Variety, he would say, makes the community more than the sum of its parts. I believe his famous passage to the Galatians 3:28 would read, "There is neither Greek nor Pole, Black nor Hispanic, Jew nor Muslim. We are all one in Christ."

[Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an executive coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]