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Though Bill and Sophie Nowakowski left Poland more than 20 years ago, the traditions of their heritage linger during holiday celebrations.

And Christmastime becomes a celebration of friendship and good will, not unlike festivities of their adopted land.But unlike much American merrymaking, the Nowakowski celebration emphasizes Christmas Eve.

After a day of fasting and last-minute preparations, Poles join with family members in breaking bread, the quintessence of a Polish Christmas. The sacramental tradition represents a symbol of love, friendship and forgiveness, a generous outpouring of heartfelt good wishes.

"We couldn't have Christmas without the Oplatek. As we break each piece, we wish each other the best in the new year," Sophie explained.

Generosity extends to the dinner table, where an extra place is laid for a weary traveler who may stop by or for faraway loved ones. The empty place serves as a poignant reminder of the less fortunate or family members unable to share the holiday feast.

Christmas Eve dinner is a feast of variety. Tradition formerly dictated 12 dishes be served, representing the 12 Apostles. The dinner is now served without meat but with carp or pike as a main course.

Alina Zeranska, author of "The Art of Polish Cooking," relates a holiday fish tradition: "To have fish really tasty, and to avoid last-minute shopping, Polish housewives like to buy their fish live. In my childhood the Christmas Eve carp or pike was carefully chosen two days in advance, and it splashed merrily in its new habitat - the family bathtub. Nobody minded skipping a shower, such were the delights of watching the strong beast swimming around, and of feeding it bits of bread."

In addition to the fish course, pierogi, a cheese- or sauerkraut-filled dumpling, accompanied the meal.

"We look to find the right kraut. You can't buy it in a can and get it right," Bill lamented. "Sometimes we even get it imported from relatives."

Dried mushrooms, too, are imported for the pierogis and for soups, but local poppy seeds function in a variety of holiday pastries.

"It wouldn't be Christmas without poppy seed strudel," Bill exclaimed.

The combination of delicate pastry, honey, raisins and cinnamon is a brunch specialty or a wished-for dinner dessert.

Cheesecake with farmer or ricotta cheese grabs another top spot on the holiday wish list.

"Cheesecake was always a Warsaw favorite," Sophie said. "But you must have the right cheese, a real cheese. You can use farmer or ricotta and it's almost the same, but cream cheese doesn't work out right. It's what you get used to, I guess."

Another common Polish dish is Bigos, or Hunter's Stew, a hearty dish that accompanied travelers, herdsmen and hunters alike, claims a centuries old recipe. The dish is a national treasure, memorialized by Adam Mickiewicz in a 150-year-old epic poem entitled, "Pan Tadeusz":

"This bigos is no ordinary dish,

For it is aptly framed to meet your wish.

Founded upon good cabbage, sliced and sour,

Which, as men say, by its own zest and power

Melts in one's mouth, and settles in a pot . . . "

The Nowakowskis are well-settled in America but often ponder their escape from communist Poland.

"When the communists took over," Bill explained, "they wanted to do away with any religious connections in our lives. That included, shall we say, St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas, the holiday legend, began his rounds on December 6, giving candy to the children. Because he was a Christian saint bearing gifts, they tried to remove him and establish their own person, called Frostman, but it didn't work."

Many things in the communist regime didn't work to Bill and Sophie's satisfaction; the pair finagled a way to escape. Sophie volunteered as an exchange student to London; Bill followed a year later on a "vacation visa" to visit his uncle.

"The government required verification of every detail on the trip, copies and letters to prove it was authentic," Bill recalled.

"It wasn't until I got to England that we discovered it was easier to immigrate to Canada than America. The quotas were different, but we had to prove we were married and we were not. So in one day we had our wedding and the next day left for Canada," Bill explained.

Though trained as an engineer, Bill found a variety of odd jobs to support his family, eventually leaving Canada and settling in Chicago.

"We had dreamed of going to America for a long time; we even applied for the documents but did nothing. One day I found the papers lying in a drawer and we saw they would expire in 10 days," Sophie said. "Within a week we sold all our furniture, but we didn't quit our jobs or give up our apartment. I was expecting Margaret, but we went anyway. We thought `there is so much opportunity here' (in Chicago) and we stayed. We wrote back to cancel our jobs in Canada and never went back."

Nowakowskis settled among other Poles in northwest Chicago.

"They took us in and helped us find work," Bill reminisced. "I remember someone coming door to door to ask for a bricklayer's helper. I'd done that job before, but oh, was it different in Chicago. Chicago was a jungle. At home there were two helpers to one bricklayer; in Chicago, there was one helper for two bricklayers. It was hard work."

Bill moved from job to job, some for only few days, before a better opportunity unfolded.

Opportunity continued for Bill, Sophie and their children, Martin and Margaret, now University of Utah students.

The American dream fulfilled; freedom at their fingertips.

Free to explore the territory of the United States, free to build relationships with neighbors, free to pursue education, yet free to celebrate the heritage of the homeland.


(Recipes listed)

Hunter's Stew (Bigos)

Beef Roulade

Sauerkraut & Cheese Dumplings (Pierogi)

Dried Fruit Compote

Poppy Seed Strudel