If, when I was child, you told me that someday I would love sauerkraut soup I would have stomped on your toe. A soup made of something so sour it warned you in the name of the dish, floating in broth the color of a problem commode, could only be the food of starving people and those without taste buds. And Ukrainians. Particularly the Sedor-Ukrainians sentenced to eat such unenticing items and more as part of a traditional seven-fish, meat-less dinner my Mam Mam served every Christmas Eve. The meal was not my most anticipated in those days. My Pap-Pap would heap gooey spoonfuls of creamy pickled herring, pierogies (pronounced pit-oh-ghees by my family), peas and pigeons on my plate. Pigeons were the centerpiece of the meal and likely, not at all what you think. In Eastern European culture nearly every country has their own form of cabbage roll—some sort of meat and a binding agent such as rice or meal, wrapped in cabbage and stewed in a tomato sauce. You can be assured of those contents when any dish ends in –pki. Halupki, bawompki, galumpki; the list goes on. Owing to our Anthracite Coal Region heritage or perhaps just sheer laziness, we instead went with the appetizing moniker, ‘pigeons.’ And if you mention this word within a 20-mile radius of Centralia, Pennsylvania, any self-respecting coal-regioner will know that you are speaking about savory, delicious comfort food and not a dirty bird. But since this was a meatless dinner, the pierogi was filled with fish. Usually a cheap kind like chunk-light, canned tuna packed in water. As far as my childhood self was concerned, you could have filled them with shredded wet cardboard and not noticed much of a difference. Oh how we dreaded that meal. But it was a small price to pay for such high returns. After all, it was the eve of St. Nick and the first night of beloved paper-ripping rituals.
Christmas Eve was my favorite holiday when I was younger. It’s still relatively high on the list but now takes second billing behind my mid-summer birthday. On the day before Christ’s birthday, we idled until late afternoon when we would saddle up the old Jeep Wagoneer, pack the presents and travel over the hills and through the woods to Mam Mam’s house. I can almost hear my mom, hair set in rollers, makeup basket on the kitchen table, coaxing my dad to “get a God-damn shower already and put on something other than those brown pants for-crying-out-loud.” My dad isn’t one for large, loud family gatherings or dressing up and now that I’m older, I recognize his hesitance as a lazy attempt to mitigate the pain by wasting time. By this hour, my sister and I had been ready for what seemed like days. Once we were old enough to drive, we left earlier and took the back roads to marvel at the holiday light displays; in later years, it was to sneak in a stop at the bar before a dry dinner.
My dad is the oldest of four siblings and his side of the family is rather large when fully assembled. His brother Bob; his sister Terry, husband Joe and two children; and sister Lisa, husband Vince and six kids made for a raucous, spirited evening when together. And I loved every minute of it. From the moment we walked through the door, it was chaos. My Pap Pap would often be found holed up in the den watching a gunslinger television program and my dad made swift motions to join him there. Maybe it was to get away from the madness; maybe it was to get inside the head of the man he called dad. Mam Mam would be toiling over simmering pots of this and that and though she took the kitchen heat, I don’t think she’d eaten a hot Christmas meal since Christ himself last broke bread. And though she no longer holds supreme maternal responsibility for the big feast, I’m not entirely sure she’s known the pleasure of a hot meal. Ever.
And then, there were presents. Back then, the meal pandemonium was a mere prelude to the craziness of gift giving. After the last pea had given way to pecan (pronounced pee-caan) tassies, coconut clusters and peanut butter bars, we would make our way to the sitting room to open the gifts. As I got older, I would pause in that room when upon arrival to admire the perfect tree with the perfectly wrapped presents spilling out from under its perfectly fake boughs. Sitting in the darkness, I’d marvel at the twinkling lights shedding just enough light for me to feel that perfect family Christmas, if only for those few moments. In a little over an hour the sounds of ripping Paper and my Mam Mam saying “WHAT?” would fill the room, leaving just enough airspace for laughter and reality.
My sister and I are the oldest of eleven grandchildren by nearly 10 years and as a result, were the center of attention for quite some time. Then the other adorable little attention-seekers arrived. So the gift-opening rituals I remember most centered around the little ones. Instead of gorging on gifts, we would wait patiently for my Pap Pap’s special gift bags. Our Pap Pap was such a quiet man. I remember one year when he left his presents, still wrapped long after the snow had melted, sitting on the chair by the door in their old Centralia house. I can barely remember anything about that house but that image sticks in my memory like skin to a Band-Aid. I couldn’t believe he didn’t want presents. What kind of person doesn’t want the joy and surprise that comes with tearing into shiny dancing deer wrapped around a new fleece robe? I always thought he just didn’t like the holidays. But the more likely explanation is that he just didn’t know how to handle all of the love, joy and prosperity he’d come to enjoy in his adult life, free from struggling to make ends meet, working the mines and worrying about much of anything really. His parents had given him that. And here he was giving it to us. We just didn’t realize it yet.
His gift bags were some of the most special gifts I’ve ever received. But not because of the contents. Depending on the selection, you might receive a whimsical calendar from the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists’ Association. More likely though, you’d get a chintzy desk calendar from some bank or a planner with days too small to record your name let alone an appointment. Corncob-shaped corn skewers, pot holders and other kitchen clutter were popular filler items. He’d collect gag objects throughout the year and tchotchkes from various businesses displaying their address and phone number. Just in case you needed to know the name of a good lawyer while combing your hair. You’d probably score rolls of quarters or a two-dollar bill and you’d definitely receive a savings bond, which was his true gift—providing for his family. His big, loving, chaotic family. But what I loved most was his signature on the card. Христос воскрес he’d write, which I believe means Christ is Risen. And though he had 30 tries before he left me, he’d never once managed to spell my name the same. But he put his heart into creating those bags. And that meant more to me than any gift I’d ever receive.
In recent years, the festivities have slowed considerably, yet the family has grown. Kids have moved away to make their own families and no longer travel home for the holidays. There are new moms, cousins, and boyfriends; and soon, husbands and great-grandchildren. And a little over two years ago, my Pap Pap enjoyed his last bowl of sauerkraut soup, God bless him. He still ate the stuff as though it were acceptable food.
The one thing that remains is that meal. Sharing that meal each year with my family has stayed with me all through these years. And as predicted, I too developed a taste for the soup, the herring and the pierogies. So much so that when Kristen visited me in San Francisco a few years ago, I sought out the peas, the kraut and the pierogies and put together feast fit for Sedors. I visited the Russian market for halupki and vodka. I made brown broth with sauerkraut and together we dined like children who could eat whatever we wanted, but chose not too. Because it’s about nostalgia—food is. My memories of Christmas are wrapped up in the traditions we cultivated around the table, talking, laughing, smiling knowing smiles. Even the smells are enough to send me through time and space to a era where Santa still existed, family could do no wrong and all was right with the world.