A patron at the local biergarten said that he was from Poland and asked where Aga was. The bartender replied that Aga had left DSK months ago, and he did not know where she had gone. The patron no doubt was interested in Aga because she, too, had been born in Poland. Aga, who worked at DSK when I first started going to the biergarten, struck me as different from the other servers who were not born in the United States. She seemed a bit older, her accent thicker, her English less good, her education less extensive than the others. She struck me as less ambitious than her colleagues; she did not seem to have another career in mind as other servers did. Although I talked with her frequently, I don’t remember much from our conversations except for one in December.
She told me her son was getting excited about Christmas, but it quickly became apparent that the mother, too, was looking forward to the holiday. She told me that she was going to have a traditional Polish Christmas with her boyfriend. I had met him only once. Big and burly, clichés of Middle European thugs came to mind. But then I found he had the gentlest handshake, a twinkle in his smile, and a soft, soft voice. Aga said he doted on her son, and another staff member later told me that he was a Polish bear—a Polish teddy bear.
I realized that I knew nothing about the traditional Polish Christmas celebration. I was a bit surprised because I believe that if you live in New York for a while, you begin to take on new ethnic colorations. Thus, in some sense all true New Yorkers are a bit Jewish. You absorb some of the religious practices, Yiddish phrases, the rhythm of speech, the humor, the foods of Jewish people. And, similarly, a true New Yorker is at least part Irish, part Chinese, part Italian and has absorbed, aware of it or not, some southern gospel background.
This was not true, however, at least for me, with Poles who, after all, do not have as large a footprint in the City as other groups. I asked her about the Polish Christmas celebration. She told me that in the Polish countryside, hay was spread under the dining table to symbolize the manger Jesus was laid in, but Aga and her boyfriend were not doing that. They were, however, going to have the Christmas Eve feast of many dishes that started with eating something akin to a communion wafer. She said that carp was often served. I asked if this was similar to the traditional Italian Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes—a misnomer because while all the courses are seafood, all are not fish. Italian food and clams always go together, as they do when honoring the birth of Jesus. Aga said that the Polish celebration was not the same. They did have carp and maybe some other fish, but all the courses, while meatless, were not seafood. Poles gotta have borscht, and they do when honoring the birth of Jesus. And they do not restrict themselves to a paltry seven courses; they have twelve. After the feast, presents are opened, and, traditionally, people go off to bed early to be ready for early morning mass. She told me that the dinner on Christmas was not meatless, but it was not as important as the meal the evening before.
I asked how long it took her to make the twelve courses. She laughed and said that she didn’t. Delis in the central part of Brooklyn where she lived sold many of the Christmas dishes that would be served. I got the name of the place she went, but like many other things, I have forgotten it. But the evening sounded incredible to me and made our family’s traditional Christmas Eve celebration seem a bit scanty.