Category Archives: Celebrations

Season’s Greetings

A crèche in Michigan, where I lived as a child. (Source: Medusa’s Kitchen

My father was born on 17 December 1907 at his family’s farm in Veselava, which is in the Cēsis district of Latvia. There, no doubt, was a stable and the requisite assortment of domesticated animals, but he, unlike Jesus, whose birthday supposedly occurs a week later, came into the world in a well-appointed house, complete with servants. Which is just as well since it’s freezing cold—not to mention snowy—at that time of year and my father might not have made it. So, as an immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the weather is similar, I cringed each time that I saw a nativity scene with a nearly naked babe asleep on a bed of straw. My father, who’d studied theology at the University of Latvia in Rīga, cautioned me not to take things in the New Testament too literally since it had been written nearly 20 centuries ago. Still, I felt far better once, decades later, I later learned that even scholars who limit themselves to what’s found in the Bible doubt that the blessed event occurred anytime close to Christmas. Particularly since I learned that neonatal hypothermia can set in anywhere below 77.0 to 82.4° F. As in Bethlehem, where December averages range between 57 and 47.

Separating “Christ” from “Christmas” came easily to me. After all, the Latvian word for “Christmas” is simply “Ziemassvētki,” which merely means “winter celebrations.” As such, it is as much about the winter solstice, the day with the longest night, as it is about a miraculous birth, which was a relatively late add-on. As my mother, a city girl, told me and I later fictionalized in my novel Anna Noon:

Christmas Eve in Rīga started in Dom Square. First with a Lutheran service at the Dom Cathedral, then with a stroll home in softly falling snow, amid carolers lifting their voices in equal measure to Christian and pagan songs and merrymakers cavorting as gypsies, storks and dancing bears. In my fifth-floor flat on Elizabeth Street the tree was bright with white wax candles, not the garish incandescent bulbs used here. My presents opened by starlight, not the glare of the morning sun as is done here.

Moreover, the separation was seen from the start. While solstice celebrations go back at least to neolithic times—10,200 to 8800 BC—the first recorded Christmas celebration occurred in Rome in 336 AD. In fact, some say that Saturnalia, which initially coincided with my father’s birthday and honored Saturn, the Roman god whose reign was seen as a time of peace and prosperity, served as a model for the first Christmas. There are certainly similarities. Saturbalia was celebrated by “a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.” It, like most winter solstice celebrations, was a festival of lights, with candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. No wonder the poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Nevertheless, Christmas turned out to be an off-and-on affair. The Puritans, for instance, banned it in the 17th century, citing drunk and disorderly conduct. Revived in the 19th century with the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church, it remained disreputable. The family oriented occasion that we have come to know, according to some, is mainly the invention of Charles Dickens and other writers.

But both winter solstice celebrations and Christmas are not only about “the best of days” but also about the worst of days, and therein lies their true meaning. As sung in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.” The reason that December celebrations tend to be glutenous and raucous is that the period from January to April was once known as “the famine months.” Animals were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed, therefore a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. Moreover, wine and beer had been fermenting since the harvest and were ready for drinking. For those with meager resources, however, the struggle for survival could be brutal. The middle-aged black man who I saw daily after moving to Boston in the Seventies who had set up a tent made of rags in a space on the street by a curb cleared of snow to provide access to a fire hydrant. And the other 554,000 people reported to be homeless in the United States alone on a given night. The mothers and fathers with one-month old infants, the same age that I was when we were forced to flee our native land. And the other 68.5 million people worldwide today who, according to the latest report, have been forcibly displaced in the worst refugee crisis since the one we experienced after World War II. All cold and hungry and far from home. Like my family and I were once. And—if only symbolically—like Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

‘Tis the season for all those sorts of things.

Note: Each year around this time I give a gift of winter supplies for refugees through the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief and development organization founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. Would be wonderful if you could do so, as well.

 

A family friendly winter solstice celebration hosted by The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, located just outside of the capital city Rīga.

Jingle Bells,” played in 2017 by some children living at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the central West Bank.

Bread, Salt and Water

All I had on my dining room table this New Year’s Eve (Photo: Ilse Munro)

One thing I learned early on was that you see in the new year properly or suffer the consequences. Even though we arrived in the United States as Latvian refugees who had lost everything in World War II, soon there was caviar and vodka on the table on New Year’s Eve. And on New Year’s Day, there was a remarkable dish garnished with dill, lavished with Hollandaise sauce and washed down with white wine: a poached fish with head, tail and skin intact but bones and flesh removed, the later turned into forcemeat that—together with hardboiled eggs and other artistically arranged items that looked lovely when sliced—was reintroduced into the unscathed skin.

Alas, more was involved than mere food and drink. The scales from the fish were rinsed clean, dried in the oven and, apportioned by the number of people present, wrapped in parchment and given to each to put in a pocket. Then silver coins were handed out to each to put in a shoe. This belt-and-suspenders approach increased the certainty that there would be abundant wealth in the coming year. At least according to my maternal grandmother, who had once been a businesswoman and was the most financially savvy among us. Even  with this, she would warn, good luck could elude us if the first to cross our threshold was anyone other than a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. Even my father, who fit the bill but was disqualified, had his own two cents to add: as soon as the clock struck twelve, we had to head outside to toast the entire world. And, no matter how wasted we were or how deep the snow might be, take a long walk after breakfast.

I suppose I could have scrapped all that when I left home and distanced myself from the Latvian-American community. Instead, I not only dutifully performed every ritual and internalized every superstition but also added a few of my own. The latter started simply enough with a decision to dispense with the American custom of making, then breaking New Year’s resolutions. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to get my life in order before the old year ends so that I could start the new one with a clean slate? My response to something so seemingly sensible soon turned into a compulsion as compelling as any that came from my ancestors. Every bill had to be paid, every room—closets and cupboards included—had to be cleaned, every obligation had to be met. Not to mention shopping for liquor and fish and washing and drying those damn fish scales.

By the time, decades later, that my father had died and my mother and her demanding English Springer Spaniel had moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me—while I was making the 60-mile DC commute, working 16-hour days and flying cross-country on business trips—I sought simplification. Not at first, of course. She loved the holidays as much I did, which only motivated me to do more. But as the year that she turned 90 drew to a close, I was dragging so badly that the best that I could do was haul home a tree and prop it up in a corner, where it stood for days before I could bring myself to set it up and decorate it. Come Christmas Eve—when Latvians hold their main celebration—everything looked festive, but it then took another supreme effort to start New Year’s preparations.

Perhaps I sensed that this would be our last New Year’s Eve together. Perhaps she sensed it, too. At any rate, she felt the need to lighten my load. All those things that we do, she confessed, are nice but not that necessary. All that really matters is that there is bread, salt and water on the table by midnight. With those three essentials, any resourceful person can survive—and even thrive—in the coming year. Of course, I managed to do all the unnecessary things that I had done before. But, from then on, every year but one, an arrangement of bread, salt and water occupied a prominent place on the table. Particularly the last few years, when it became impossible to ignore the role that hunger plays in the United States and also in the global refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II, when my family and I were among the more than 50 million displaced persons.

The exception was the one time in my life when, for want of better words, I thought: fuck it. Without doing a damn thing, I went to bed early instead of seeing in 2015. Within weeks, I was hospitalized and nearly died. The reason, I knew, had nothing to do with my singular lapse. In retrospect, my health had been deteriorating throughout 2014 and causing considerable lethargy. But, when it came time to ring in 2016, I did not dare take chances. I made absolutely sure that I would be awake and that, at the least, there would be bread, salt and water on the table. And since 2016 was generally acknowledged to rank among the worst years ever and 2017, what with the political situation as it was and all, was unlikely to be much better, I decided not to tempt fate and do substantially more than the minimal.

So, I re-stocked my liquor cabinet and wine bin. Then headed for the fish store where I was once instantly recognized as the fish-scale lady. Only this time, no one remembered me. And I opted for red snapper instead of rockfish, which my late mother liked to call “rocket fish” in honor of my NASA consulting work. But did manage to pick up some caviar, which she would have wanted, as well as a dessert that, in deference to her cravings, had to included some form of chocolate. By the final countdown, all my bills were paid—easy now that everything is automated—and there was bread, salt and water on the table. And other items reserved for after midnight and the following day. And there was one of the Kennedy half dollars that my maternal grandmother collected in my shoe and a packet of fish scales in my pocket and more scales in a pretty silver box on the table. The house, apart from the dining room, was mainly a mess as were other aspects of my life, but somehow now it did not matter.

I lit candles, including one that I placed in the window for all my distant and departed family members and friends. Then, at the proper time, walked out onto my front porch and raised a glass to 2017. It was unseasonably warm but cloudy, so I could not see either fireworks or stars as I crossed the street to stand on my riverbank. And I was all alone—my neighbors were celebrating elsewhere—so there was no one to grab for a kiss. In fact, if any tall, dark, handsome man were to cross my threshold in the new year, it would likely be an installer from Best Buy, since several major appliances had recently died. But when I returned inside for caviar and cake, everything suddenly looked so lovely. I was strangely satisfied with my imperfect effort and even allowed myself a moment of irrational optimism.

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In addition to the basics of bread, salt and water, necessities for welcoming the new year were expanded to include dried fish scales in a silver box and a Kennedy half dollar as well as dry white wine, black caviar on ice and chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Note: If you have European, British or Middle Eastern roots, you might want to learn about variants of welcome rituals based on bread and salt. And if you then want to do something that is more than merely symbolic, might want to send New Year’s greetings to family and friends through the International Rescue Committee, which lets you make gifts that help refugees in their name, which is what I also did this on New Year’s Eve.