When my grandmother came to the United States in 1907, she brought a steamer trunk with all her worldly possessions.
She also brought traditions steeped in the Byzantine Catholic heritage that formed the center of life for the peasant farmers and herders in her small village in the Carpathian Mountains, along what is now the Slovakian border with Poland.
We don’t follow most of the feast’s religious customs today—fasting before the meal, wheat at the table, clean white tablecloth, holy water and garlic. Nor do we drink the shots of whiskey before the meal (even children supposedly were given a few drops) or the legendary shots between each course (which, according to my dad, made for interesting singing at midnight Mass in the ethnic church).
My fondest memories of the supper are as a child, when the extended family—maybe 20 people at the peak—would crowd around a plywood table made with sawhorses in the living room of my grandmother’s one-room-wide house in Clairton. Steamed formed on the windows as the heat and aromas from cooking cabbage, percolating coffee, boiling potatoes and the gas stove filled the air.
Adding to the atmosphere was the fact that my dad, aunts and uncles carried on most of the evening’s conversation with my grandmother in her native tongue, except for the occasional words like “A&P” or “income tax.” I only wish that more of her younger great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, who never got to know her, could have had that tie to her past.
After the prayer came the food—bobalky (bread balls drenched in honey and poppy seed), mushroom soup, prunes, peas, mashed potatoes, cabbage and sauerkraut, pirohi (pierogies) and nut/apricot/poppy seed rolls. Other families have such dishes as lentils, nuts and meatless holubski (cabbage stuffed with rice) on their tables, as the meal varied family to family and village to village.
Tradition holds that to honor the Christ child, everyone has to eat at least a small sampling of each course. The family tradition among the children, which continues today, was to see how microscopic a mushroom sliver can be. My Aunt Ann always made sure there was something more palatable for the children to look forward to after the meal, usually a Christmas ice cream treat for dessert.
The meal is supposed to have 12 courses, one for each of Christ’s disciples, but I never really counted as a child. My mom, after taking over the meal for our immediate family when my grandmother died, added fish as the fifth course after doing some research on the origins of the meal. She traded stewed prunes for ones soaked in port wine. And my mom also counted cookies, dessert and coffee to make sure there were 12 offerings.
Today, we have a little more elbow room as my brother’s and sister’s families, and mine, gather around the table. As is the tradition, my nephew (the oldest son of the oldest son) has the honor of lighting the candles on the same wooden altar that hung in my grandmother’s home.
After my mom died, my brother, sister and I took over the task of preparing the dishes. Because we just don’t have the time or talent to roll out the dough for homemade pirohis, we buy them instead (but never the supermarket varieties).
My daughter, who has great respect for family traditions, is likely to continue the meal for her own family someday, even though she isn’t fond of some of the courses. But if my son, a Food Network junkie, decides to continue it at all, I have no doubt he’ll spice it up to make it more gourmet and less “peasanty,” taking a more daring step than my mother did by adding port wine to the prunes.
As an 18-year-old, my grandmother bravely left her small rural village and ventured across the ocean—first to Braddock as a hotel maid, then to Clairton, where she raised her family after marrying my grandfather, who came from a village near hers to work in the mines and the mills here.
We really don’t know how much she changed “Big Supper” from the way her family observed it. And I guess, in the end, it’s less about changing the recipes and the observance, and more about preserving the spirit of a family gathering my grandmother held dear.
Vesele Vianoce, Baba! (Merry Christmas, Grandma!)
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