It's been many years since my childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but I can recall Christmastime on Polish Hill as though it was yesterday. It was a close-knit community built up by Polish immigrants in the hills above the city (check the website). There were mostly row houses on every hilly, cobblestone street, small shops, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church (see photo no.1) and parish school, which was the spiritual and social center for our neighborhood. It was the church where my grandparents, parents and other family members were married, and most of the children were baptized.
The children walked to school and were taught both English and Polish by the nuns in black habits. Weeks before Christmas, preparations were underway for the big Christmas pageant for family and friends. I recall wearing a traditional Polish costume and performing a folk dance with a group of classmates. The big finale always was the live nativity scene with costumed children in the roles of the holy family, shepherds, angels, and the three kings.
Santa Claus would visit the children's classrooms to pass out candy canes to each one, and sternly warned them to be good or they'd only get a lump of coal in their stocking. Santa only filled the stockings, but sometimes brought one special gift if a child was especially good all year.
At home, we also prepared a little early for Christmas as my father would build a three-foot high platform for the tree in our parlor. Then, he set up elaborate train tracks around the entire six-foot wide platform for the chromed red flyer train cars to run around and beneath the tall tree to be placed on one corner. He and mother created a realistic mountain village with houses, shops, and a special place for the creche and figurines for the nativity scene. When this was completed, I would go with my father to purchase a long-needled spruce tree. My mother would oversee our decorating of the tree, and made sure we "ironed" the icicles between our fingers before hanging them neatly, one by one, on each branch. The tree with a yard underneath it was a tradition in almost every home there, as between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany we visited different houses each evening to see their decorated trees.
During these post-depression times, there were no elaborate outdoor displays in the neighborhood, other than wreaths on each window and a single candle, which represented the star lighting the way for the shepherds. As times got better, large colored strings of lights would appear around front windows or a doorway -- the beginning of what we see today.
All the family gathered on Christmas Eve for the Wigilia and sharing of the oplatki (a Christmas wafer) with each other. In the center of the table, beneath the tablecloth, was a bed of hay representing the manger on which the oplatki was placed. The table would be groaning with a variety of meatless dishes, fish, borscht, fruits, freshly baked sweetbreads, nut breads, paczki, etc., as our Babka insisted there had to be 33 food items to represent each year of Jesus' life. An extra table setting was always set for the unexpected visitor or a missing family member.
After dinner we exchanged and opened gifts, the children rushing to be the first ones at the tree. Following the grand opening, the young children would hang up their largest stocking for Santa to fill, and were put to bed. Later the older children and most of the adults went to the Midnight Mass< celebration. The church would be beautifully decorated (see photo no.2) and filled with the sound of organ music and the choir singing carols (kolendy).
Christmas was the best day of the year.... nobody went to work, schools were closed, and there was much to eat. The children enjoyed their new toys, books and games, and the sweet treats left by Santa. Most years we had heavy snowfalls at Christmas, so the new sleds were put to a test on the hilly streets. Afterwards, returning home to the smell of the turkey roasting with the most wonderful stuffing in all the world was the culmination of my childhood memories of Christmastime on Polish Hill.