Natalia and her catch

Remembrances of Christmas Past

By Hank Nuwer

My recent role in Fairbanks’ “Miracle on 34th Street” as Kris Kringle has made this a particularly memorable Christmas season. With so many child actors and carolers in the play, the acting experience felt as if family members, not a cast, put on three weeks of performances for our community.

As Santa in “Miracle,” I sang a Polish version of Good King Wenceslas.

A Polish refugee girl visited Santa on his dais and asked for a Barbie doll and a visit from her grandmother. My wife Gosia, a proud and newly minted U.S. citizen from Poland, tutored actress Isabella Walters to speak and sing with me in Polish.

Last Christmas season (2022), my wife and I stayed in a cozy New Hampshire Airbnb cottage in the woods. The hosts invited us for a Christmas buffet — with lamb and beef dishes. We sang our hearts out and played a Bible trivia game. Then the family took us to the woods and showed us the modern way to tap maple syrup.

Another memorable Christmas was in 1980 when a photographer and I were on the road in rural Montana interviewing sheepherders for a national AARP magazine story. We stayed in rooms in a low-budget family hotel as a Greyhound bus broke down and tourists filled the place.

One small boy was with his mother. She had just separated from her husband and was headed somewhere Back East to live with her parents.

Our hotel hosts, a couple expecting their first baby, threw together a community meal of turkey and trout from their freezer for unexpected guests. The photographer and I raced out to buy presents for the boy. We ran into several stranded passengers who also wanted to give the boy gifts. After the communal meal, a cowboy played guitar, and we all sang “Silent Night.” Then, the surprised youngster opened about 20 presents wrapped in newspapers or gift wrap.

I miss the memorable Christmas Eves wife Gosia and I celebrated in Warsaw from 2016 to 2019. I, as Kris Kringle, was sincere in saying “A real Christmas spirit is a thing of joy!”

So now let me share our traditional Polish Christmas vigil ritual.  As the grandson of a Polish refugee, I also celebrated an annual “wigilia” all my boyhood on Grandfather Josef’s family farm.

Gosia Nuwer

The vigil starts traditionally with the family sighting of the first star, and it marks an end to the traditional Christian Advent fast I naughtily break 39 out of the 40 days.

Next, our family ends the fast with the breaking of the Christmas wafer (opłatek). All members exchange a small piece and wishes for good health in 2024.

The feast begins with a Catholic rule. No meat dish graces the table on Polish Christmas Eve.

The vigil meal contains 12 traditional portions. Don’t try this at your home unless you first loosen your belt.

The appetizer is boiled beetroot soup served chilled with sour cream on the side.

Next, is my favorite, pan-fried dumplings (pierogi) filled with cheese and Gosia’s famed sauerkraut. This year, Gosia made the treats at a fun-filled gathering of Polish community members in Fairbanks..

When Gosia and I carried on a long-distance romance in Poland (2016-19), we next indulged in a yummy vigil soup made with dried yellow mushrooms from our cabin in the woods east of Warsaw.

After the soup comes a giant plate of sockeye salmon prepared in gelatin. The remaining portions include homemade bread, salad, herring, potatoes, braised sauerkraut with prunes, meatless cabbage rolls (Gołąbki), a cheesy noodle dish, and a whipped-cream-filled cake (pavlova) for dessert. Gosia swears it has no calories because the white frosting contains fresh blueberries and strawberries. She donated a pavlova at our Fairbanks Rotary Club to make more than $100 for charity.

Gosia and I will enjoy a quiet present exchange as we keep our Dec. 24 vigil. She got me a watch fob and I got her a set of combs.

Kidding! She got me a Haida argillite walrus carving from the Blue Door, and I splurged for an “In My Element” jeans jacket with embroidered art.

On Dec. 31, our Natalia will fly to us from her World Health Organization researcher job in Malaysia to enjoy a late Christmas reunion at the Grand Canyon.

As I wished our “Miracle on 34th Street” audiences: to you all a Wesołych Świąt! Thank you