Do you have precious holiday memories? Something that fills your heart with so much joy, that a warm and generous smile seems to linger for a while. I hope so. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate, in your special way, as you gather with family and friends to enjoy the fond traditions that only this time of year can bring to life. During this holiday, I have always enjoyed the spirit of giving gifts. And my waist line merrily moves at least one or two notches further on my belt, as I sample a bounty of irresistible treats that would be impolite to refuse. But it’s the cheerful celebration that I cherish most. For it brings a gladness that softens the sadness for those who have passed on, leaving warm and heartfelt memories behind, of the many ways we shared these holidays together.
I have so many treasured memories of winter time in Ludlow, Massachusetts. It seemed that when I was just a kid, the snow was deeper and of course it had to shoveled and not plowed. It could take hours to clear the snow from our driveway. And when the town plow drove by, to the remove the snow from our street, sure enough, it left a 2 foot high wall of the white stuff which took another hour to get rid of. I remember going to our local fire department to pick out our tree. Mom was fussy and inspected each one, checking for imperfections. Once the final choice was made, it was sprayed with a fire proofing chemical. Because, in the 1950’s, Christmas light bulbs could generate a lot of heat, increasing the danger of igniting a tree as the branches became dry and brittle in about a week. Compared to now, the light bulbs were larger and made of glass. It was my job to test each string of lights and replace the dead ones with fresh ones.
Before the tree could be decorated, it had to stand in our garage until the branches relaxed, as though the tree were spreading out and opening up. Then it was ready for flocking with artificial snow, one of our traditions. That meant using the Electrolux and connecting the hose to the exhaust port. That way it would blow air through the flocking device. Mom used powdered snow which would be mixed with a fine spray of misted water before it landed on the evergreen needles. And when mom was done, the tree literally looked like it had been blanketed by a heavy snow fall. The artificial snow looked so natural, that everyone one visiting, would stare in amazement and couldn’t resist touching the snow because it looked so real. There was no other tree in town like ours. I was so proud of it.
Next, my Dad would secure the tree to a platform, driven by a motor that made it rotate, around and around. A turning tree was unheard of in the 50s and this one was custom built, one of a kind. I distinctly remember how the motor purred with a hypnotic mechanical hum. Next, was my favorite time, when mom proudly and brought out her prized boxes of ornaments. They were delicate and handled with care along with stern warnings, especially to me, not to play with them. There was one that she treasured most, a little copper colored tea pot, which I loved too. Watching it dangle and daintily sway, I never tired of seeing it come around, again and again, as the tree spun in a holiday pirouette.
When the decorating started, mom hung all the ornaments that were valuable and easily breakable. In my little boy mind, they were all exquisite and worthy of the wonderment that this magical time of year brought for me. After all, Santa was coming and these ornaments were family treasures that would surely please him. They were designed into a variety of shapes and sizes and styles. It seemed as though my mom knew them personally and displayed them with great care, as she chose which branch they would be hung from. I carefully watched her technique which included stepping back to gaze at the tree, much like an artist does, as a masterpiece is being created. Then she would rearrange the ornaments until she was completely satisfied.
Then came the tinsel and finally, it was my turn to join with the trimming. Naturally, I had no patience at that age, making it “more funner” to haphazardly toss the tinsel willy nilly. I couldn’t see, by the way I clumsily draped the tinsel, that I was making a glittering mess instead of making them look like icicles on snow laden branches. Of course mom methodically repositioned those that were too far off course and showed me how it was done. And so I learned to honor our tree, as a beautiful gift from Mother Nature, and to dress it up to look spectacular, not only for us, but for everyone who visited our house. They were charmed by our tree and I could tell how much it made them truly happy.
While mom was fussing and creating the perfect tree, it was a family tradition to play Christmas carols. Mom would put a stack of 33 1/3 records on the turn table and year after year I became familiar with all the songs that were so nostalgic for her. Besides the Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and Burl Ives standards, she always played a choir of Polish Christmas carols, known as koledy. My favorites were sung by a church choir with Mormon Tabernacle quality and such a sacred beauty that I wished I could have spoken polish and understood every word. But that didn’t stop me from slowly memorizing the songs and singing them phonetically, as though I were back in the “old country” with my relatives, celebrating Christmas in Poland, probably with much older traditions than ours.
On Christmas Eve, my mother prepared several cultural dishes that were attached to our Polish roots. We feasted on Haddock, battered and fried with onions and sliced potatoes. There was borscht, made as a creamy mushroom soup. The way to eat borscht in our house was to enrich the soup with generous chunks of Kielbasa (our traditional sausage), Polish rye bread (only from our local bakery) and hard boiled eggs. Although it was not appetizing to look at, it was a big treat for me. When the meal was over it was time for Oplatki, the sharing of a specially blessed wafer. Each of us took turns offering our Oplatki to one another and small pieces were ceremoniously broken off. With each piece, we wished each other good health, happiness, a long life, peace on Earth and anything solemn and reverent we could think of. The pieces were then swallowed with hopeful anticipation that it would all come true in the New Year approaching. Oplatki brought us all so much closer and the intimacy I felt, even as a little boy, was something that keeps this memory so distinctive and somber and filled with love.
So, thanks for taking this stroll with me down the memory lane of a 50s Smolen Christmas. I hope that your observance of the holidays also bring you closer together as a family. There must be so many delightful traditions amongst us all that make the UF Health Florida Recovery Center family so diverse. Collectively we are stronger from the spirit of the holiday and our gift is to channel that directly into our patients and help them convert it into the spirit of recovery. For some of our patients and their families, this may become the most important sober holiday of their lives. I can only imagine the miracles we will hear about when they return from their visits. There is every reason to expect healing to occur for those who have prepared themselves with assignments, step work and change. And for that we are grateful and hope that the New Year brings more sobriety and a life in recovery that is worth living. May our patients start new traditions with their families and celebrate every day of sobriety, one day at a time.
Happy Holidays to everyone,
Jamie Smolen, MD