Polish Immigrants Come Home For Christmas, If Only In Their Dreams
Poles in the United States, Brazil and Britain recount how they've tried to adapt to the season in their new homelands. It can be bittersweet, as Polish traditions for them still hold sway.
CHICAGO — In Poland, the highlight of this season is Christmas Eve, when families gather to have an abundant 12-course meal. Agnieszka even has two. Ever since emigrating to Chicago 28 years ago, she awakes on Dec. 24and immediately begins preparing for the big dinner. After putting on an evening dress, she makes a video call to Poland, where her aunts and uncles are already sitting at a sumptuous table, next to a real Christmas tree.
Agnieszka still recalls the days when she recorded her Christmas greetings on a VHS tape and sent it to her loved ones by mail. Now her happy face appears in her family via digital screen, as 19th century portraits of her ancestors hang on the walls back home.
Of course, it's still not the same as being there.
Agnieszka isn't alone in Chicago, though. She's married to an American and lives in the same building as her parents, who came with her to the United States. Like many other Polish immigrants fleeing communism in the 1980s, they came to the U.S. poor and lonely, knowing that there was no turning back.
Christmas far away from home was a difficult time, so Agnieszka's family initiated a Chistmas Eve tradition in which they hosted new friends among the Polish diaspora. "We invited all friends we knew who would otherwise spend this evening alone," Agnieszka says. People from different areas of the country brough traditional dishes from their regions, and the overall atmosphere was very festive.
"We didn't serve any strong alcohol, but we did have wine and liquor, which helped with the integration," Agnieszka says. "I am a very tolerant person, so if somebody wanted to smoke grass, I had nothing against it."
But 2001 was the last Christmas Eve that Agnieszka and her family celebrated with other Polish immigrants. The group crumbled as many of its members spread out all over the United States, others returned to Poland, and still others assimilated into American society.
"With time, as you feel more and more at home in the new country, your links with your countrymen loosen," Agnieszka says.
Christmas on the beach
Anna, 30, left Poland five years ago for South America. "In a Brazilian family, everybody wishes Merry Christmas to each other at midnight and then heads towards the beach to meet up with friends and have a beer," she says. Even though the temperature is very hot there in December, Santa strolls through the shopping centers, and fake snow decorates artificial Christmas trees in Brazilian houses.
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Christmas in Sao Paulo. Photo: Ricardo Castro
Anna doesn't miss a white Christmas. All the fever of preparation before the few days of celebration seemed too stressful. The easygoing Brazilian attitude, on the other hand, hit just the right note for her. In her new home, her friends sit at the Christmas table in flip-flops and shorts.
Boxing day in London
After growing up in the Polish mining region of Silesia, Kasia left home at 18, fed up with the "angry and grey faces" around her, and headed for England. She came in July hoping for the best, but the reality turned out to be difficult.
She spent the first six months working back-breaking jobs all day long, only realizing that Christmas was upon her a few days before Dec. 25. "I was shocked because nothing around me announced the upcoming celebrations," she says. Back in Poland everything and everybody changed as the end of December approached. "People become nicer to each other, warmer," she says. "You can feel the Christmas in the air."
Kasia says her first Christmas Eve in Britain was a disaster. Although she and her friends tried to organize a celebration in the Polish way, the Christmas spirit they felt in their homeland just wasn't there. Even the meals they bought in one of the many Polish stores didn't have the flavor they knew from back home. The key ingredient, the spiritual dimension, was missing, Kasia says.
"The most significant thing the English people do is shopping."