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Four Years at the Mount

Senior Year

A traditionóbroken and shared

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

(12/2017) The night before Christmas is, with few exception, always the same. Over the river and through the woods a table is almost groaning under the weight of food. Thereís enough, someone jokes, to feed a small army. My grandmother brings out some wine, pours it out, and my mom and I help to lay the table with plates and glasses. My grandfather sneaks me a piece of ham that tastes salty and faintly like clove and goes to check the fire, adding another log to be sure it doesnít go out. After dinner and a soporific nap everyone dresses up for mass. I make sure to wear my bright red stockings and green dress to ensure that tradition is kept.

However, even before dinner there is a touch of tradition. As a family with roots in Poland and Slovakia, no Christmas Eve dinner is complete without oplatek. In comparison to the savory and sweet dishes on the table it is decidedly bland. Resembling a communion wafer, about the size of your hand it is dry, tasteless and usually embossed with a nativity scene. It is made to be broken, shared and consumed before the meal.

The tradition itself has been in practice since about the 10th century when designs were cut into a thin bread called podplomyk to make breaking it easier. The unconsecrated wafer is a symbol of family unity and is sometimes sent to absent family members or loved ones. In some parts of central Europe where the tradition is still practiced, oplatek is dyed and used as decoration. The Catholic faith is centered around community and the tradition of sharing a simple wafer serves as a reminder of the inner communion shared within families. Oplatek is a tradition of forgiveness, reconciliation, remembrance and most of all love.

The Christmas season is my favorite seasonóa sentiment I share with my entire family. As soon as November begins so does the decorating, the cookie baking and the excited texts that share the news that the next weekís weather forecast has a snowflake on it. I have always valued the traditions my family has passed down to me and the scattered memories that pop up all around the house this time of year. Throughout our entire house are mementos of the life we have shared: an overturned, painted clay pot snowman from fourth grade, my sisterís rather comical paper gingerbread man ornament with white tissue hair, a matched set of puppet ornaments my parents got on their honeymoon as souvenirs. Even reminders of my great grandmother live on in recipes written in her neat, curved handwriting; these are recipes that my mother probably knows by heart, but none the less reads multiple times to be sure. As she pours out the flour she would tell me how perfect her grandmothers cookies were and, mimicking the Pennsylvania accent to perfection, she would tell me what her grandmother told her: itís a good cookie, Chrissy.

On top of everything, dwarfed in ratio to the tree and lost in the lights, limbs and sparkling glass is a light pink-clad angel with small gold wings that we have had for a lifetime. Through the headaches of tangled lights and the misleading labels on boxes whose lids donít quite fit any longer, my family creates memories that will always been added to and shared.

I will always remember that I woke up early. Before the sun even peaked over the horizon my eyes would open and I would slip out of bed, shivering slightly as my feet met the cool hard wood. It took me many years to learn where to step to avoid the creaks and groans that would, no doubt, stir any creature or mouse. My fatherís less than soft snoring would ensure me that Ma and Pa were still in the midst of their winters nap. How I would make my way past my parentís room without being heard?

I will remember how it felt to step as lightly as possible down the steps, smelling the fragrance of pine, candles that were blown out hours ago and the soft scent of the heat coming off the metal radiators. The doors to the room that housed the Christmas tree were always closed on Christmas morning (by Santa no doubt) and they rattled lightly as they opened. I only opened them wide enough to squeeze through because any noise could wake my sister who is not the most pleasant when her sleep is interrupted. After the lights glittered into being I would sit in the light of the Christmas tree, swaddled in blankets, until my patience wore thin. Unable to wait any longer, I would make noticeable rustling that would no doubt be heard by my parents and sister.

Christmas has changed a little. I neednít worry about waking my sister; between work and school I havenít been around for a majority of the cookie making. However, I still wake up early. As I get older I am able to wait longer before waking anyone else. Now, I peacefully enjoy the silent, dark, mornings lit only by the Christmas tree. It is my own personal tradition. Even when I am old and gray and full of sleep, on Christmas Eve Iíll make sure the oplatek is broken and shared around a table full of food and family. And before the sun reaches through the night I will wake up early to keep my morning tradition and vigil with the Christmas tree.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir