Tuesday, October 4, 2011

You take Christmas, I'll take Thanksgiving

In 2000, I visited Poland, with Martin, for the first time in my life.

This was when I got to meet his Uncle Adam. An amazing person who I secretly like more than any other person in Martin's family (shhh, don't tell anyone). I mainly like him so much because he reminds me of the best parts of my own father. And it's nice to see a reflection of my dad when I am so far away from home. Uncle Adam is also Martin's Godfather, a role that is not taken lightly in the Polish culture and I think, over the years, Uncle Adam has been able to give him many bits of wisdom and encouragement here and there. One of which he shared with Martin on that first visit of mine back in 2000.

He said,(in a nutshell), that the culture was going to be the hardest part of our relationship. That the cultural differences were what would cause the most friction in a marriage  between a Pole and a non-Pole (he was speaking hypothetically of course since, at the time, we were nowhere close to marriage). A hint of a warning, but mostly a matter of fact, that should be recognized and acknowledged. And, he was right.

This one big difference has been the source of most our "heated discussions" in this house. And while Martin and I have never had a real "fight" we have had many  discussions, and they are almost always centered around cultural differences. I want to try and explain what this is like because it's important to me and in the aftermath of my "Managing Expectations" posts, and his renewed zeal for his homeland now that he is actually there, we have had a couple such discussions (thanks to modern technology you can still argue with each other even while in separate countries...ahhh... technology).

I get Thanksgiving and he gets Christmas (Eve).

Because we have never spent Christmas Eve with my grandparents (the day our family holds a traditional celebration, with Italian/Catholic customs), we spend every Thanksgiving with them. Every Christmas Eve with Martin's family and  every Thanksgiving with mine (we do spend Christmas Day with my parents but not my grandparents). Which means that we have never spent a Thanksgiving with Martin's family. And yes, they celebrate Thanksgiving. Polish or not, they recognize this American holiday,( a good one, no?).

Last year, at Thanksgiving, we had the same discussion we have every year (and which we will be having again, very soon, I'm sure)...

Me: Maybe this year we should have Thanksgiving at your parents house and Christmas Eve at my Grandparents. It would be nice to have one Penitential Meal (an article written by my Aunt Tina) with my family before my Grandparents aren't around anymore and the kids can remember it.

Martin: Yeah, we really should talk about alternating years or something, you know, like most people, right? I'm sure my parents would appreciate us making it to one Thanksgiving dinner with them as well.

Me: Well, if you told your mom that it was either Thanksgiving or Wigilia, what do you think she would say?

Martin: She would want us at Wigilia, definitely. But it's not really fair to you, either, to never celebrate Christmas with your Grandparents and that side of the family.

Me: Well, we could switch it around this year, just see how it goes.

Martin: I can't imagine missing Wigilia, it just won't seem like Christmas. Yeah, the Christmas season is much longer than those two days, but this is the BIG night , it's just not Christmas without it. You know?

Me: I know Martin, and I would really miss Thanksgiving with my family. It would be hard for me to enjoy the day away from them. The way we have it set up now works fine. We don't need to change anything. It's just the way it is.

I hesitate to divulge the inner workings of our attempt to combine two cultures because there is no way I can do it justice or convey how hard it is at times. It takes compromise, just like any resolution within a good marriage. It takes discussion and discernment. It takes patience and understanding. It takes prayer. It's HARD. Because while you are trying to do and be all these things, in the back of your mind, you're just thinking, "that's not fair, I have to give up ME to do all the things you want to do. It's just not fair!"

And when Martin jokingly says to me, "why can't you just be Polish? Life would be so much easier if you were just Polish!"

I jokingly reply, " Look, you are the one that chose to marry an American, no one twisted your arm. Deal with it!"

(All the while knowing that we are both about 1% serious).

Because we love one another. I love him because of, and sometimes despite, his Polishness. I'm not moving to Poland and learning the language and trying to learn some native customs because I love Poland. I didn't even give Poland a second thought before I met Martin. I am doing all of those things because I love Martin, and he loves Poland, and I love what he loves, because it's important to him.

This doesn't mean that along the way I agree with or am happy about some of our compromises. I have had to give up a lot, and so has he. It has been hard. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. Truly. Uncle Adam's statement, as innocuous and simple as it might have been at the time, has come to be seen as a definitive moment of foreshadowing that gets played out over and over again, sometimes daily.

It was not until we seriously started preparing to move to Poland and I started this blog, that a lot of these issues were brought to the forefront. It's going to be a rocky road. And sometimes the boulders will be in my own living room. I know this. I'm ready for it. I am praying, more than anything, for charity, patience, and understanding. I wll battle that great serpent of Pride that creeps out of the dark corners of my mind daily. It's not winning, today.

 At the end of the day Martin and I are not one culture or another, we are just two people who love each other, trying to make a life together, and it's challenging whether you're from the same hometown or from completely different sides of the world.

But, we love each other. What are you gonna do?

So, that's her huh?
"Meeeeh...coulda been worse..."

P.S. I would love to hear about other households that have struggled and yet successfully combined two cultures and what you have found helpful. Martin and I do our best but I know there are some great ideas out there that we might be overlooking that could ease the path.

P.P.S.  Name the source of the quote under little Martin's picture and you could win a lollipop!


  1. Well.... :-)
    I'm Matka Polka ;-) and we celebrate mostly according to Polish traditions, because American traditions are.. well.. not that settled. Especially, if you think about Catholic American traditions (which don't exist, except if other national traditions survived within any given family or if you want to start one).

    When we lived outside of Poland, we always celebrated Polish Catholic holidays in Polish Catholic way (even when we were Protestants!). The only one "special" American holiday was Thanksgiving and we were almost always invited to some other American household for that.
    Back in the US, we still celebrate Polish way plus Thanksgiving. I'm completely emotionally disjoined from Thanksgiving, because it does not carry such solemnity as Polish Wigilia. It's just dinner and friends. Maybe a 1min prayer. Ok, 2 min. :-) (and I know Squanto story with the monks etc.).

    So... we celebrate Advent, Wigilia, Lent and Easter, All Saints and some Polish saints feasts in a Polish way. But they are not only Polish, but Polish Catholic, which is the only reason why the traditions are important. And then we have Thanksgiving.

  2. To your point, both our families celebrate all the Catholic holidays, feasts, etc. And because we were both raised Catholic, those traditions, (ironically all, EXCEPT Thanksgiving, which was established by a Protestant) are based in Catholicism. They don't look the same perhaps for each family. But they are both meaningful and solemn, and religious in nature.

    If my family were not religious, or perhaps Protestant (actually my mom's side is (mom is a convert) then it would be easy for me to embrace my husband's Polish Catholic customs. But as it is, my family does have American Catholic customs, because we are American Catholics and have been for several generations...it's a hodge podge but it's still solemn and meaningful and most importantly, Catholic.

    I dont know. I think the hard part is feeling like, because Poland has such "full" traditions, that the ones I have set aside in order to partake with Martin's family are "empty" in comparison. They are not empty to me, no matter how they look to other cultures, and I don't want them to be empty to my kids. If we were planning on living in America for good, I would insist on some Christmas Eve's with my family and the symbolism behind the traditions present there. I want my kids to think of that as "Christmas" as well. But as it is, they will probably never know that part of my childhood, or that tradition, unless I try to establish it in Poland, which doesn't seem likely. In America, it's not about "American" so much as "my family's"... but still important to me. Know what I mean?

    Perhaps some new traditions that only exist within our little family unit will have to evolve, if Martin will let them. We have toyed with the idea of hosting Christmas Eve/Wigilia and adding some of my family's traditions to it, and that is something I would love to do once we are in Poland, and theoretically, celebrating Christmas Eve in our own home (behind closed doors where no one can see us. ;) ).

    We'll see. It's tricky

    Although, I would not, in a million years, want to take on the challenge of combining two religions.That would be hard, especially for a Catholic. When I was a teen my dad said, "I don't care what color skin he has, or what country he's from, he needs to be Catholic, because sometimes, your faith will be all you see eye to eye on." Now I see why he said that.

  3. P.S. Does that make me "Matka Amerikanska?" ;)

  4. To say that Christmas would not be Christmas without x seems born from the sentimental nostalgia attached to the holidays that cultures have created for themselves to be unique. That doesn't make them less important but it is superficial. There is nothing sacramental about the penitential meal or the Wigilia. CE is about celebrating who you love in the name of the One who redefined love for us. The only sacraments at stake are the Eucharist and your marriage. I think that if you don't do Christmas Eve with the Danzes at least once before you leave, there is a greater risk of regret and resentment within the marriage and a potential loss of the culture that is unique to you rather than a loss of the Wigilia tradition which will undoubtedly take place in your Poland home (or in the homes of others who will make it a part of your every day life through discussions, etc) just by cultural pressures and forces you can't even really point to. Surely Martin can give up the Wigilia one year for you and the family to at least as you mention establish a memory for the children. Even if you always celebrate the Wigilia every year after, the kids will have an experience of the Penitential Meal to root them in the traditions of the Danze/Sicilian-American contingent of your family. (Although maybe waiting to do it when they will all remember it is better if it really comes down to one Christmas Eve in 20 years.)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Well said. There is a lot more to this discussion, and the reality of the situation. Right now, in my heart I am struggling between my desires and my submission. ( i thought you'd like that last line ;)... and its true )

  7. I think the most compelling case for doing the Penitential Meal on Christmas Eve this year, though, is for Grandma and Grandpa. You don't know if and when you'll be able to return to the US and celebrate really one of the only consistent holiday traditions our family has.

  8. Did you your vow include 'to obey'? I think that's only a part of protestant wedding vows.

  9. I don't remember my wedding vows. That was a long time ago and the priest talked funny. ;)

    We will be here next Christmas, but I doubt Martin is going to want to celebrate NEXT Christmas Eve with the Danze's...although he will have had a whole year in Poland to be with his people. Maybe one CE away from his family wont be as big a deal. It's not about obey. It's about harmony. Maybe he should go to his parents house and I should go to grandma and grandpa's. We could both take two kids. Problem solved, yeah?

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