Growing up in a rural area of N -E Pennsylvania my family celebrated twice, once on Dec. 25th and a second on January 7th, the latter we called Russian Christmas the heritage from my father. My parents came from different backgrounds; Mom’s parents were German protestants born in the USA and Dad’s family immigrants from Russia and Orthodox Christians .
My fondest memories were of Russian Christmas Eve when we went to our grandparents for a traditional supper. A table was set for all the family with a cloth spread over hay making for a lumpy surface for our table settings. They placed a blessed candle in a jar of rice that served two purposes, the second came at the evenings departure. There was a small bowl of raw garlic which I sometimes tasted while others devoured several cloves and the aroma pervaded the room. We stood around the table and the head of the house prayed in Russian; many years later we learned the mysterious prayer was The Lord’s Prayer. No meat, fish, eggs, or dairy were present as the fasting lasted until after midnight.
Seven courses were served, one at a time with plenty of Grandma’s homemade bread baked on a large cabbage leaf. The meal included: 1) butter beans, 2)peas, and 3)mushrooms each cooked in a light sweet tomato sauce, 4) peirogies with onions in butter sauce, 5)mashed potatoes, 6)oatmeal gravy (not my favorite), and 7)fried cabbage. We walked around the table three times putting the silverware under the cloth. I never knew why except nothing was washed until after Christmas Day.
Entertainment included being together with our cousins and Uncle Paul would draw us pictures. Later the choir from the church came and stood around in a circle in the kitchen singing hymns and also some comical songs. Some of them were dressed in traditional Russian outfits and did tricks and acted silly. They had usually been imbibing of spirits in each home they visited. I can picture the group of twenty or more in Grandma’s kitchen.
After midnight with the fast over we all received candy. Presents were given to our aunts & uncles, just small practical gifts like nylon stockings & socks which my mother stopped to buy on the way there where clothing and shoes could be purchased in sizes from infant to adult. We lovingly called it the Jew store and another up the street for toys. That was the only time my mother ever drank an alcoholic beverage not wanting to insult the husband & wife by refusing a small glass of Manichevitz wine. The last thing was blowing out the candle held by the oldest person and we all lined up to see if the smoke went out the door or straight up or into the house which according to custom meant a family member would move out or stay.
The Russian Christmas Eve supper continued at my parents home after our grandmother passed on. The choir no longer came and it was just my siblings and a few close relatives less hay under the tablecloth but otherwise the same and each of us blew out the candle.
Last year was the first year I made the supper for our family and tomorrow night we’ll continue the tradition. Dad and Mom have passed on but somehow they seem present and approve of our carrying on as usual. And we’ll all be blowing out the candle.