A Polish-American Christmas Carol

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Trying to define what it is that Christmas means is a tall order. As everyone saddles up for Christmas celebrations with a seemingly outrageous list of preparations for everything from gift-shopping to coordinating Griswold-esque vacations with the family, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the hustle and bustle of it all. For me, with each passing year, the old customs and rituals take a little different tone. Not in a huge way, but still, they seem to settle a little differently deep down inside, in the scary realm of the warm and fuzzy; where notions of deeper meaning and cosmic peace run rampant. Perhaps it’s just getting used to being one year older than I was last year, but maybe it’s something else; something about being a Polish-American. As I was at Greenfield Village the other night for the Holiday Nights event, the thought occurred to me that experiencing a treasury of Christmas stories from such a wide sampling of Americana was truly valuable! As we celebrate Christmas in 2011, to learn about such a diverse and broad sampling of our American ancestors’ Christmas celebrations was a fascinating and supremely useful tool to be used when trying to understand our own customs today. Learning how Sam Daggett, a veteran of the American Revolution, celebrated Christmas with his family in the 1760s in New England, right after experiencing the Christmas traditions of Henry Carroll, a Maryland plantation owner in the 1860s, followed by stepping back into the 1930s Edison homestead, was beyond rewarding, and made me give some thought to why we do what we do at Christmas.

I consider myself blessed to be in America; a place that allows me to view a stunning panorama of culture from virtually everywhere I go. As much as I treasure my Polish heritage and long for the comfort of my Polish roots, the fact that I can’t completely lay claim to a centuries-or-older ethnic or cultural custom is something of blessing in disguise. I can’t begin to describe the inherent awkwardness in trying to find real meaning in a holiday custom I really can’t take ownership of. Like many Polish-Americans, the early generations of my immigrant ancestors didn’t put much effort toward instilling Polish culture in the new wing of their transplanted Przewozniaks for the future. I suspect it’s something that many immigrants simply assumed would come naturally; no one forgets where they’re from, right? Don’t I wish it were that simple. Every –ski and –wozniak could tell you they’re Polish, but the beautiful cultural quirks and pearls that were the foundation for the Polish identity were eroded by the passing of time, leaving people like me with nothing but an empty memory of something I ought to be doing at Christmas, or a birthday party, or anyplace else one finds a celebration. Stinks, right? Not as much as you’d think, and especially not at Christmas. You see, being a slight bit on the outside when it comes time to partake in a meaningful Christmas tradition I think, puts one in a good place to deeply observe the greater meaning behind them. This could very well possibly be my background as a historian making a guest appearance, but I digress. Watching as so many cultures; so many different families, celebrate our Savior’s birth in their own special way, is a truly beautiful thing to behold, and just like the many historical Christmases at The Henry Ford, truly inspire one to contemplate how we celebrate, and what we’re celebrating.

It’s a grand shame that we have such a tendency to associate the Christmas season with stress and worry. I’m as guilty as anyone else, at times. All the nightmarish feats of logistical chaos that usually surround Christmas parties, vacations, special events and the like tend to overshadow the true meaning of what’s upon us now. Fight it! Make time for relaxing with friends and loved ones! As the season gives us opportunity to pause and reflect on real beauty of Jesus, it also gives us a time to recharge for the upcoming year. For us at Polish Mission, as we crunch numbers (and finally get around to cleaning the office, coincidently), we’re taking extra time to brainstorm about next year’s plan of events and programs. As we set up contacts and dates for a new round of cultural events, the relaxed pace afforded by Christmastime allows us to enjoy one of my favorite parts of being at Polish Mission: reflecting on why we do what we do. Asking the important questions over again: how can we strengthen and brighten our community? What concert or lecture will bring the biggest and most diverse crowd to the Orchard Lake campus? From where we stand, how can we help shape a better future? These questions aren’t light, but constantly revisiting them is how we maintain focus. Running haphazardly through a season of regular operations would be to lose hold on our mission; to become so wrapped up in the day-to-day programs that we forget why we’re here. If that were the case, we’d just be spinning our wheels. Because, what else would it be when there’s work without a plan? What’s a journey without a destination? Exactly: a waste of time. For me, that’s what Christmas is about: realizing the greater meaning in things, and what I need to do. Not getting would up in some special custom or noggeriffic holiday bash, but re-focusing on what’s important, and recharging. That’s what I’ll be doing for the next couple weeks. Anyone want to join me?

To everyone out there, we at the Polish Mission wish you the Merriest of Christmases this year.

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Left: The Przewozniaks Three: Dad, Mom, and I some Christmases ago
Right: Advent by Candlelight at Orchard Lake Schools