I was not brought up in any particular religious tradition. My grandmother with whom I grew up was Catholic, but my granddad was an atheist. My dad is an agnostic. My mom believes in the existence of God, but has never practiced any religion. I was christened in the Catholic Church, but I only became a practicing Catholic in my teens. Nevertheless, our family always celebrated Christmas. It was a sacred family holiday enveloped in many family rituals.
To me, a child not even 10 years of age, Christmas was mostly a joyous anticipation that started with the arrival of a Christmas tree in our home. Picking the right fir tree for Christmas was my granddad’s responsibility. The tree had to be dense, perfectly symmetrical, and of the right size for its spot in our living room. My granddad had a special stand made for our Christmas tree. Not only could the stand hold the tree perfectly straight, it could also hold water so that the tree did not shed its needles before Epiphany. As soon as the Christmas tree was firmly fixed in its custom-made stand, it was time for its decoration, which was also executed by my granddad under close and strict supervision from me.
My grandparents had an extraordinary collection of Christmas ornaments that seemed nothing less than magical to me. They were in the shapes of all my favourite fairytale characters: a bear, a snowman, a genie, Aladdin’s lamp, a hut on a chicken leg, and many others. I insisted that all of these characters should go onto our Christmas tree. My mom always campaigned for a more aesthetic look: she tried to talk me into decorating our Christmas tree in Christmas ball ornaments of two or three colours. But I refused to cave. Christmas ball ornaments seemed simply too dull for such a magical holiday as Christmas, and that was always my winning argument. Up onto our Christmas tree Christmas ornaments in the shapes of magical creatures went! I could sit on the sofa in complete stillness admiring how soothingly these creatures spun around their magical orbits for hours, but there was no time for idleness in our household during the pre-Christmas period. Christmas tree decoration was only one small peace in the garland of our family’s Christmas rituals. The biggest part of that garland was devoted to food.
On Christmas Eve, there had to be exactly 12 dishes on our dinner table. That was my grandma’s responsibility. According to the Catholic tradition, Christmas Eve is the last day of the four-week fasting that precedes Christmas. Although our family never observed the Advent fast, there could be no meat in any of the 12 dishes on our Christmas Eve dinner table. But on that table, there was one dish that we could not have on any other day of the year: Christmas Eve biscuits. They were small pastries made from leavened dough and served in poppy milk soup — ground poppy seeds mixed with water and sugar. Although Christmas Eve biscuits did not contain much more than flour, poppy seeds, yeast, and sugar, they were the undeniable culmination of the Christmas Eve dinner that adults and children were equally looking forward to. The Christmas Eve dinner always began with the ritual of breaking and sharing Christmas wafers — very thin unleavened wafers made from pure wheat flour and water. My grandma placed a Christmas wafer for every family member on a plate in the centre of the Christmas Eve dinner table. When dinnertime came, each family member had to take one wafer and offer a piece of it to all other family members around the table. Nothing tasted better than these plain wafers to me as a child. Thus, when all family members broke off a little piece of each other’s wafers, I got to eat everybody’s wafers’ remains. Then the dinner officially began.
Sharing Christmas wafers at the beginning of the dinner and indulging in Christmas Eve biscuits at the end of it were my favourite parts of Christmas Eve. They created a sense of unity among all family members: everybody big and small became equally ecstatic over bits of the simplest food. I think it was not the food, but the ritual of sharing that evoked the ecstasy in everyone at the table. Although my grandparents always enjoyed entertaining guests and we rarely had a quiet night at our house on all other days of the year, Christmas Eve was strictly for family: no guests, no relatives, only my grandma, my granddad, my mom, my dad, myself, and a lit candle next to an empty plate for those family members who had passed away. Although nobody spelled it out, Christmas Eve was the time to look into the eyes of your loved ones and express everything you felt for them — apologies, gratitude, forgiveness, love — in that one silent look. It was the time to come together only to realise that, despite everything that happened during the year — all grudges, misunderstandings, frustrations, and losses — we were still a family, and we were okay.
When the dinner was over, there was only one thing left for me to do: wait for Santa Claus. I would park myself on the sofa next to my favourite fairy tale characters on the Christmas tree and keep my watch. I could never remember the moment when my body refused to co-operate with me in my vigil, but my parents recall that I was quite a resilient child who could stay awake long into the night. All adult members of my family had to make a united front and take turns napping to outdo my zeal for meeting Santa Claus face to face. This uneven distribution of forces always led to the same resolution: no matter how hard I tried to keep my vigil on the sofa at night, in the morning, I would always wake up in my bed to my Christmas presents already sitting under the Christmas tree.
As soon as I unwrapped my presents, the magical part of Christmas was over for me. It was back to life as normal: meat was back on the table and I was back to sharing my family with neighbours, friends, and relatives who seemed to pour into our apartment incessantly. “Merry Christmas! Look what Santa has left for you under our Christmas tree!” was the most common conversation starter I heard from our guests. Then my family and the guests engaged in their adult conversation and I settled in my childish world with Christmas presents and a Christmas tree with fairy tale characters conspiringly swaying on its branches.
The older I got, the less magic seemed to be left in my family’s Christmas rituals for me. I stopped objecting to my mom’s decorating our Christmas tree with Christmas ball ornaments of two or three colours. I stopped staying awake late into the night for a chance to look Santa in the eye. I stopped counting dishes on our Christmas Eve dinner table. For all I cared, we could only have one or two of them. We could do away with all Christmas rituals, for all I cared. But we never did. With age, my grandparents became so frail that they could neither fix a Christmas tree in its custom-made stand nor make a dinner of 12 vegetarian courses. But my mom, my dad, and I kept doing it for them year after year. For a long time, I was convinced that we only kept up our family’s Christmas rituals to make my grandparents happy. It took me two Christmases away from home to realise that I was not entirely right.
The first time I had to spend Christmas away from my family was in 2000. I was an exchange student in Ireland and I could not afford to fly back home for Christmas before my exam session in January. A very sweet lady from my college’s international affairs office took pity on me and invited me over to her place for Christmas. On my arrival, I was greeted by a large and loud crowd who was very happy to see me. We had a wonderful dinner, shared stories, and exchanged presents. Everything was sweet and simple, the way I had thought Christmas had to be: nothing superfluous or unnecessary, only the community of people who enjoyed being together. But, strangely, it did not feel like Christmas. The same feeling came over me when I had to celebrate Christmas away from my family in the US in 2009. I was invited to my classmate’s home and treated like a true family member there. It was a very touching and spiritual experience, but again, it was not Christmas in my book. This was when I realised that I actually missed our family rituals that I had been so keen to discard, not because they were better than everybody else’s, but because they were something that our family honed together over years and generations.
Our family has shrunken. All my grandparents are gone now. But the light and warmth they shared with us on Christmas and all the other days of their lives flicker in the flame of a lit candle next to an empty plate on the Christmas Eve dinner table and the rituals that we repeat on every Christmas year after year: Christmas wafers at the beginning of a 12-course vegetarian dinner, Christmas Eve biscuits in sweet poppy milk soup at the end of it, and Christmas ornaments in the shapes of fairy tale characters that are taking the places of more and more Christmas ball ornaments on our Christmas tree with every year.
Aiste Ptakauske is a published author of one collection of short stories, two best-selling novels for young adults, and the Lithuanian translation of Leonard Cohen’s novel “Beautiful Losers.” For her short fiction, she was awarded a Lithuanian national prize for the best fiction debut of the year. For her translation of “Beautiful Losers,” she was shortlisted for the Lithuanian Literary Translators Association’s prize for the best literary translation of the year. “Ethnic Kitchen” (Pasaulio virtuve), Ptakauske’s documentary about immigrant women in post-Soviet independent Lithuania, is included in curricula of several European universities. Ptakauske is also a public speaker and coach of international reputation. She specialises in cultural intelligence enhancement and helps professionals across fields to lead and communicate effectively in intercultural environments.