Thursday, May 20, 2010


All holidays were secular including Christmas. There was not even a hint of pretense that anything about the communist society was Christian or based on a very strong Christian tradition. The only concession to Christianity that mom was allowed to make without going to jail was to have our parish priest come to our home and bless it every Christmas and Easter. He was a very handsome man with deep blue eyes who spoke so many foreign languages that he inspired me to try to be like him. I owe some of my linguistic ability to this very erudite person who could read Latin and Greek with ease.
People did not get the day off at Christmas but celebrated the New Year's Day, a secular, communist sanctioned holiday. Christmas was not about gift giving, it was about togetherness with friends and family, cheer, and good food. It was a one time a year opportunity to eat well, the communist party supplied the stores with more food, the lines were shorter, there was more booze delivered to grocery stores, and an anemic Christmas tree was decorated with lights in some of the larger cities. Some families bought their own blue spruce and decorated it with real candles, apples, cookies, and home made paper ornaments. I remember owning a few real ornaments, given to me by my grandparents. Ornaments were availble but very expensive. Candles were lit with care a few minutes a day to avoid fires. There was no Santa Clause taking photographs with children and generally speaking, Saint Nicholas was someone to be feared. Children left their shoes outside the door on Christmas Eve and, if they behaved properly, Saint Nicholas would leave a chocolate bar and some candy. We did not go to church to pray as many churches were closed. Villagers were luckier because some of their priests opened the modest churches for liturgy on Christmas Day. I have attended church with my aunt Leana on Christmas. She was a cantor and deacon. The village was perched on this remote mountain of salt and because it was so inaccessible, the communists tended to leave it alone. People had small, productive orchards and vineyards because it was not feasable for the communists to take over their land as it was so spread out on top of the mountain. Caroling and donations of food to very poor families with widowed parents were the highlight of Christmas. One tradition observed in most parts of the country, Wallachia, Moldova, and Transylvania was the slaughter of a pig at Christmas. I always refused to watch the slaughter of my grandfather's pig the week before Christmas. I could hear the squeals of pain and saw the blood in the white snow. It always made me squeamish and I could not eat the meat. This pig provided sustenance for the entire extended family for months to come. The meat was smoked into ham, deep fried and preserved in large lard vats, and made into sausages smoked in the attic. Salt was a natural preservative and needless to say, many adults had issues with high blood pressure from so much salt and lard. Some of the meat was cooked fresh on open pits outdoors and the family gathered around the fire to celebrate the abundance of food and the flowing wine. Even small children were handed glasses of ruby red wine, most of it produced on the premises or in the village. I ate many hearty meals cooked on a cast iron top, wood burning stove that channeled hot air to other rooms in the house via primitive mud brick ducts. Villagers bartered things they had in excess with other neighbors since money was so tight. Services were also bartered, one learned to adjust to being poor in so many creative ways. My grandmother and her middle daughter learned to be seamstresses and made dresses. Her youngest daughter was a skilled accountant. Her oldest daughter was a master weaver -she made beautiful fabrics and wool rugs. My own grandmother knew how to spin the coat of a sheep into beautiful yarn, dyed it herself with vegetable dyes and knew how to knit warm and scratchy sweaters. I grew up in grandma's sweaters since my parents could not afford to buy expensive clothes. And they were all expensive when we lived on such meager incomes. My godmother made my dresses. She could take key measurements of my body, and with chalk, make an outline of the various dress pieces on fabric without a pattern, cut them with scissors, and voila, a new, not so trendy dress would emerge. She stitched it together on grandma's 80 year old Singer pedal activated sewing machine. We did not care about fashion, we were glad to have something to keep us covered and warm.
Grown men would go carolling in the village on January 1st to herald the arrival of the New Year. Dressed in traditional costumes, they walked beside a sled pulled by horses. A young green fir decorated with colorful paper ornaments was perched on the sled. Singing and cracking their whips, they demanded pay in food or money from each home. People gave small tokens of their poverty because they believed in sharing as a virtue.
Larger cities had an area reserved for rides for small children and it was the highlight of my year because sometimes the scary Saint Nicholas made his appearance. The children of the ruling elite could actually take their black and white pictures with "Santa."
My parents were my secret Saint Nicholas, they always put a small food item under my pillow - a chocolate bar, a bag of candy, a perfect apple, an exquisite orange from Jerusalem wrapped in fine tissue paper, or a perfect banana from Greece, with their exotic aromas of forbidden and out of reach fruit for mere mortals. I would imagine what would be like to pluck the fruit from its faraway mediterranean location and to bask in the glorious sun as snow and ice was blanketing our surroundings.
Christmas was abundant with snow and gave us kids the opportunity to sled downhill and to have our fathers drag us up and down the street. It was sheer happiness. Our moms would layer our clothes so much, we could hardly move. The key ingredient to staying warm was the flannel pj underneath all the clothes. We played in the snow from the time we woke up until nightfall. By the time we returned home, our clothes were so wet from sledding, ice skating, falling and getting up, that they froze stiff on our bodies. Nobody had hypothermia or lost any limbs to frostbite. We were happy and oblivious to our state in life.

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