06 January 2013

Rusyn Christmas Eve Reminising

1940s Photograph from SS. Peter & Paul Orthodox Church, Central City, PA
Front Row: Gubi—John Muha and George Smolen
Angels-- John "Herbie" Pribish, Steve Evano, Ed Fetsko and Mike Strongosky

 How well I remember those long-gone Christmases in the mountains of  western Pennsylvania when Diana, Johnny and I, bundled in heavy winter coats, snow pants, high boots and babushkas or a hat with scarves tied around our faces so our noses wouldn’t freeze, trudged up the hill through the snow from Poplar Street Elementary School for Christmas Eve Holy Supper at Zedo Telmanik’s house on Pine Street.  We Orthodox who celebrated according to the Julian or Old Calendar knew that January 7th was the real true Christmas because we always had snow for “our Christmas”.  When we finally arrived at Zedo’s (Rusyn for grandfather), we’d strip off our outerwear in the entryway of what today would be called a walkout basement of his red-shingled house built on the side of the hill.  

 The minute we opened the door into the lower-level kitchen our frozen faces thawed from the heat of the coal stove that had been fed for hours to cook the traditional Christmas Eve strict-fast meal.  No meat or dairy products allowed.  Ah, the essence of pagach and bobalki baking in the oven and mushroom machunka (a thickened soup), pea soup, sauerkraut and potatoes simmering on the stove top.  As soon as the first star appeared in the sky, the animals were fed as the Star and the animals were present at His birth.  I have only a very dim memory of a cow with big eyes staring at me in a dark barn so it must have been long gone by the time I started school.  I do however remember the chickens but that’s a story for another time.

The three of us chronically moaned and groaned that we were melting in the inferno of that crowded kitchen.  We never could understand why we couldn’t eat in the room above that had a large round dining room table, a built-in china closet and no big coal stove taking up space and fresh air.  In fact, it had no stove at all.  It wasn’t until Aunt Helen and Aunt Marge graduated from high school and went to work and pooled their money that a gas stove was installed.  Ah, cooking upstairs made gathering downstairs much more pleasant.  All we had ever been told was that’s the way houses were built in “The Old Country”.  A 1988 trip to visit relatives in what was then Czechoslovakia and now Slovakia did indeed verify the story.  In olden days there, the animals were also housed at the back of the lower level during the winter so that the heat they generated helped to keep the house warm.  Thank heavens my maternal grandparents left that custom behind when they immigrated.

Who sat around the table depended upon when January 6 fell during the week.  My grandfather, of course, was always there but sadly I don’t remember my Baba being there as she died when I was two.  My mother, being the oldest daughter in town and who loved to cook, thus inherited the task of preparing Holy Supper for the extended family.  Her two younger sisters Helen and Marge, who were still in high school, were her assistants. 

Uncle John Telmanik and his wife Ann who lived up the street were regulars too.  Sometimes Diana, Johnny and I were the only children there as we were among the older grandchildren and the only ones who lived in town.  When Uncle Tom Murray was an Army medic during World War II, Aunt Mary and Ronnie stayed with Zedo.  I was too young to remember those days but I’m sure the two of us had a good time together as we are the two oldest grandchildren. 

My siblings and I loved it when our Christmas fell on the weekend and Uncle George and Uncle Pete could come home from the service, and later from their jobs in Cleveland, to join the family around the table.  They both doted on us and we knew there would be some really special kid things under the tree from them.  When these two youngest uncles married, their wives Aunt Ann and Aunt Helen joined us around the table.  

I’m sure one of them, or perhaps both, had a hand in arranging for Santa’s sleigh complete with reindeer and jingle bells to fly over Zedo’s house one Christmas.  As a curious no-longer-a-believer-in-Santa, I wanted to know how they did it but they insisted that it really was Santa and his reindeer.  I’m sure it was some sort of projector that Uncle Pete picked up somewhere because he was very much into photography and still being a kid at heart which he maintained all his life. The one thing I can't understand is why he never took pictures at Holy Supper. After all, he took pictures of the D-Day landing when cameras were forbidden, catching the action on the beach as well as the sinking of the Susan B. Anthony.  

  Uncle Mike and Aunt Helen Telmanik and their children Mike and Sandra would wind up the mountain from Bedford if the road wasn’t snow covered or treacherous.  Their younger daughter Susan wasn’t born until 1959 after Zedo had moved to Cleveland to stay with Aunt Marge and Uncle Andy Balog so she never got to sit around the table.  Depending on where he was stationed with the Marines, Uncle Andy, Aunt Peg and their daughters Claire and Tama Lynne might also join us.  After Uncle George and Uncle Pete were married, their wives Ann and Helen were squeezed into the group around the table.  Then, of course, their children came along, Dennis and Darlene for Uncle Pete, and  then John, Joe, and Georgann for Uncle George.  

Usually Dad arrived right before we sat down to eat at the time when the first star was sighted in the sky.  I don’t recall how old I was when I figured out that his late arrival was because he was at our house putting the Christmas presents under the tree after work.  Of course, we wanted to know why we got our presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning like other kids.   As kids we accepted the explanation that Santa had so many gifts to deliver that he had to bring ours early.  It also saved hassling three excited kids who were more interested in opening presents than getting ready for church on Christmas morning. 

            The table was covered with a white tablecloth reminding us of the Christ Child’s swaddling wrap while the straw on the floor spoke of His birth in a lowly manger.  The lit  decorated candle in the center symbolized Christ as the Light of the World.  When the family had all gathered around the table and before sitting down, Zedo would lead us in  Our Father.  Then everyone would sing the Christmas Tropar (hymn):

Rozdestvo Tvoje Christe Boze nas, vozsija mirovi svit razuma,
v nem zvizdam sluzasciji, zvizdoju ucachusja, Tebi klanatisja Solncu pravdy,
i Tebe vid’iti soysoty Vostoka, Hospodi slava Tebi

Thy Nativity, O Christ, our God, shineth forth the light of reason over the earth,
For in it, they who served the stars were by a star taught to adore Thee,
The Son of Truth, and to see Thee from the heights of the East,
O Lord, glory to Thee!

Even though some English was introduced into the Divine Liturgy during my high school years and all English Liturgies are common today, the English versions of Rozdestvo Tvoje  and the greetings just don’t stir up the Christmas spirit and memories like the Rusyn words do.   

            Zedo would then raise his wine glass and proclaim “Christos Razdajetsa (Christ is Born)!”  We would raise ours and respond, “Slavite Jeho (Glorify Him).”  Yes, even we kids who looked forward to having a thimble full every year. Once the meal began, no one was allowed to leave the table.  Now if you don’t think that custom was pure torture to squirmy pre-schoolers and grade schoolers!

             Traditionally twelve foods were served in commemoration of the twelve Apostles and everyone had to at least taste each one.  Zedo would start by taking a creamy white garlic clove and dipping it in the salt on the plate before passing the plate on.  The garlic was to remind us of the hardship and bitterness of life.  Its bite was soon forgotten by the pagach, a potato-stuffed flat bread that could only be torn apart as knives as well as forks  were not permitted at the table as they were a reminder of the sword that pierced Christ’s side as He hung on the cross.  It was dipped in honey representing the sweetness of life and the promise of an even sweeter life brought by the Newborn Savior. The wine and bread were to remind us of the Last Supper where Christ blessed both and shared them with his Apostles.  

            The pagach could also be used to soak up the remainder of the next course, one of my favorites-- mushroom machunka, a thick soup made with dried popinki (mushrooms) and sauerkraut juice and topped with onions sautéed in oil to a golden brown.  At this point, the conversation would shift to whether it was a plentiful or so-so year for popinki.  If there were next to no mushrooms, it was a Rusyn tragedy. 

            In the fall, the hills would be alive with the sound of popinki  pickers searching for the small flat-headed mushrooms that grew in the woods and meadows.  After they were cleaned, a large needle with heavy thread was used to string them into “necklaces” that were hung on back porches or near the furnace in basements to dry for keeping through the winter.  In our house, mushrooms dried on cookie sheets on the hot water radiators.

I loved the mashed potatoes covered with sauerkraut but intensely disliked the split pea soup with diced potatoes.  Fussing about how much you hated pea soup didn’t get you anything except the threat that Santa wouldn’t let anything under the tree if you didn’t have at least a couple of spoonfuls.  I’d console myself by thinking of my unfortunate friends whose family served lima beans (which had never knowingly gone down my throat) and by patiently waiting for the potato soup to come to the table.  

Ah, but those diced potatoes swimming in a broth seasoned with vinegar and a zaprushka were a different story. It wasn’t until I was 29 and joined a gourmet-cooking group that I found out what I was making was the traditional French roux of flour browned in butter to add flavoring to soups and other dishes.  Finally, I found out  what  roux was and that the Rusyns weren’t the only ones to capitalize on the magic of browned butter and flour!   But it’s still zaprushka in our house today and because Christmas Eve is a strict fast day ours is made with margarine or oil instead of butter.   

Finally, the bobalki!  Those little puffs of bread drenched in honey and poppy seed signaled the closing prayer was forthcoming.  Thank heavens everyone had only one soup dish in which they placed each successive food.   Even so, when you have a crowd of people in a stifling hot kitchen, dish washing and drying is even more onerous to the older females of the second generation--my sister and me.  Everything needed to be cleaned up and sparkling before the gubi, attired in raggedy old clothes and sheepskin vests with long hide masks covering their faces and big burlap sacks slung over their shoulder, started pounding their clubs on the front porch.

They heralded the arrival of “the Bethlehemers” from our parish, SS. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church or SS. Peter and Paul Greek Catholic Church as it was called then.  The four men dressed in long white robes with colorful wide ribbons crisscrossing their chests and tall white cylindrical hats trimmed in ribbons represented the angels who filled the sky on the first Christmas telling all of the Savior’s birth.  One of them carried a small white wooden replica of a church with onion-shaped cupolas topped with a three-barred cross and a nativity scene inside.  They told the story of the birth of the Christ Child.  In Rusyn, of course, which I understood way back then.  Then everyone joined in for the traditional Rusyn Christmas carols.

The gubi were the shepherds who followed the Star to find the Child.  Somewhere along the way they became the pranksters of the group, filching nuts, candy, baked goodies and bottles of spirits from the homes that they visited.  Perhaps they were funny for adults but for children, they were terrifying.  I have erased the trauma their wooden hatchets and threats to whisk me away in their sacks must have caused me back then.  But I sure do remember the look of absolute terror in my 3-year-old brother’s eyes one year as he cried and screamed to be let out of some gubi’s bag.  

And, of course, in keeping with Rusyn hospitality, the visitors were offered drinks harder than Pepsi or Coke.  Scrounging around in the bottom of their sacks, the gubi always came up with candy or other goodies to dry up the tears before they began rattling cans for donations for their “visit” and departed.  How some of them managed to find their way to the next house remains a mystery to me.  

Sadly, today very few churches and Rusyns still adhere to the customs that our ancestors brought with them in the late 1800s and early 1900s when they left the Tatra and Carpathian Mountains to settle in the United States.  I’m glad I grew up when I did and that I had a family who cared about customs and traditions—and still does.         
                                                                          Charlotte Pribish Conjelko (Christmas 2009)

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