I grew up in Australia, which is the kind of place that exists to push back against nature. The sun bears down, the desert winds buffet you all year long, and there’s an obvious, deliberate ahistoricity to life, as if we were all born on the land just to live and die on it. It was a strange place for my Polish family to end up – everything in Poland had always been so grand and sentimental, full of emotion – so they had a particular need to keep to their own way of expression. At the heart of this was Polish Christmas Eve.
Our Polish Christmas was from the very beginning one big act of survival. Mum says that when she got off the plane in 1983, the country was on fire and there was ash in the air – she knew she’d probably need other people like her around in such an unfamiliar place. Our Christmas Eve, or Wigilia, was made up of a group of other Poles and their children, like me, who were born on Australian soil, but still had some lingering claim to Polishness. We would come together every year to celebrate but also to commiserate, because in the Polish imaginary, Wigilia carried the folklorish weight of exile. The centuries of displacements, ever since the 18th-century partitions of Poland, had left their mark on Polish art and literature, and ‘Wigilia in Siberia’ became a recurring theme.
In those early lean years, our Wigilias were literal ‘vigils’. My godfather would stand up, raise a glass of vodka, then say a few words about Poland. We weren’t particularly conservative, but my ‘family’ had escaped a tyrannical regime, and Polish self-determination was something they brooded over frequently. It may have been 35 degrees outside, but we were committed to a deep Slavic solemnity. We’d steadily make our way through the 12 dishes of steaming borsch, cabbage and fish (Wigilia is peak Advent, so meat is forbidden), before finishing the night with compote and sombre carols in minor keys. Whatever presents there were, they were an afterthought – a gesture towards their ever-assimilating Australian children and improving means.
Still, over the years, Australia managed to creep in with its own truths. There was salt in the air, day trips to the beach; the permanent dehydration of end-of-year festivities. On the last day of school, before Wigilia, we’d have to peel off our polyester school uniforms. There were problems with sourcing carp – a fish loved in Poland (for being available), but much-maligned in Australia for having infested its waterways and grown fat in its estuaries. Ours came from the Hasidic fishmongers in Ripponlea (they too understood the burden of tradition), which made for some nice multicultural Australian happenstance. Really, we should have been tucking into a seafood platter and drinking Coronas, but there’s no real way around Polish martyrdom.
There was the new habitus of a life lived in an Australian city. What began as a tight-knit Polish community, ended up spread out over suburban abstractions. There were fewer marches under the Solidarność trade union banner here, less political agitation (though they did set up the Australian Institute of Polish Affairs) and more recreation – holidays, BBQs, antique shopping in bucolic country towns. Our Christmases too started to take on a softer, more relaxed Australian vibe. Wine replaced vodka, ties would eventually come off. Christmas carols made way for dancing.
And we started to become more Protestant and appeasing, though this would regularly be put to the test when the roiling Polish emotions of familial relationships came to the fore. We’d hold onto a steady Australian-ness for most of the year, then come undone with a disagreement over fish. Mother-daughter relationships lay in tatters. Our Australian boyfriends would discern the shifting plates of Polish discord, but be dumb to their cause – there was no way to explain to an Australian that you could have a falling out over borsch.
All immigrants necessarily live double lives and they need their kids to live double lives too, otherwise they would slowly, most certainly, cease to exist. Our Wigilias, with their Polish metaphysics and constant mechanics of assimilation, managed to handle this difference and moderate the contradictions – and, therefore, in a way, so could we. In fact, my most memorable Christmas Eve came when one of the boyfriends responded in kind – by breaking out into a Maori haka and steadily beating out the rhythm to his own, Kiwi past.
When I moved to Poland at 22 – and my family followed suit – we had Wigilia at my grandparents’ place in Silesia. It was exactly as you would expect, with snow, and helpings of pickled herring, gingerbread and mead. We were reunited again, and back in Poland, whose fate was as dear to us as our own.
But it was different. Because if one of the universal laws of being a person is that you can’t ever go back, it’s especially true for people like us – we can only get on with our lives, with a generous nod to the past. This year our Wigilia will involve 25 people, over four generations, and will take place in a Melbourne penthouse with sweeping ocean views – an absurd proposition for a Polish Christmas, but one that is nonetheless true.
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