Friday, December 24, 2004


It is so very easy to be cynical around Christmas time - to be inundated with tinny carols and gaudily orchestrated lights and to be frustrated with uncharacteristic crowds.

Around this time of year, so many people try to write about *the* meaning of Christmas, when I tend to think there are many different meanings for many different people.

Families differ so much that where one person may consider a certain dish to 'make' Christmas, another may love the smell of a baking pie, or scrunched and discarded wrapping paper strewn across the floor, the sound of carols or the sight of so many people around a heavily laden table.

So let me share with you one of the things that always made Christmas such a different time of year for me.

I am half Russian and half Polish by birth and the Poles celebrate Christmas Eve far more than Christmas Day. This is the night that the family feasts and opens up presents after returning from midnight mass.

One of the elements of the feast is a tradition that I consider beautiful, still relevant and always poignant. It is the breaking and sharing of the 'oplatek' or wafer.

Similar to a communion wafer, the oplatek is usually rectangular and features intricate artwork pressed into it's almost transparent thinness.

At a certain point in the evening, the hosts will indicate that it is time to start the tradition. Each person has their own oplatek and turns to the person nearest to them, so that the room is split into pairs.

One person will offer their oplatek to the other, who will break off a small portion and hold it as the first person starts to talk.

And what is it that you say at this point? Some learned-by-rote incantation penned by another? No. These must be your words and they must be from the heart.

You must look the person in the eye and tell them how much you value them - and why. You talk about their traits and how much they mean to you. You tell them you love them (where appropriate). You wish for them the things that you know they wish for themselves in the next year. As you do this, they eat the piece of wafer they broke off. The roles are reversed before moving through the room and forming these kinds of partnerships with everyone else present.

When it's done with people that you know well, it can be such a tremendous experience. I've been in tears more than once, and have seen others cry with the simple joy (and sometimes the surprise) that comes from hearing the things said.

In this way, once a year you take a moment to look a person you know in the eye and tell them that their existence enriches your life, that they are a good and worthwhile human being and that you honestly wish them to achieve everything they strive for.

That, then, is the meaning of Christmas for me.

Sadly, it's not a tradition I've been able to do every year - but it is something that I know travels with me and that I love to participate in when the opportunity arises.

The West has it's equivalent in gift-giving, I know. We try to express those things we feel and think by choosing a token of our affection and wrapping it like a sweet confection for the ones we love.

That's why buying gifts this week was so lovely. For hours, I was able to peruse stores with only the thought of pleasing those I was buying for. I got to remember each in turn and think of what it was that essentialised them as a person - what they desired, what they needed, what they already had and what they loved.

Then I was able to choose something that - to me - said 'I was thinking, specifically, of *you* and valued you enough to buy this gift.'

If you ask me, I'll tell you that we are missing out on quite a bit by simply using tokens where words can communicate so much more eloquently and completely what we feel. But it's not something that we are taught to do and it's so much easier to hand someone a wrapped box than to look them in the eye and say "Your presence in my life makes me so happy." I suppose it's the decline of a certain spirit and bravery that we once had.

So there, to me, is what Christmas was always about. Not the food or the presents or the carols, but those few precious moments of confession with family and friends and the glowing contentment of sitting around a table afterward - to talk, to eat, to drink - and to do it all in the momentary yet solid assurance that you are truly surrounded by people who love you and that you love in return.

This year finds me away from many people I love. To those, I say that no matter how futile it seems at the time - I *do* wish for your presence with me at the Christmas table.

May you all have the Christmas you desire - the kind that stands as the final garnish of another year and that refreshes you for the year to come.


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