Christmas in Hamtramck in Polish-American Family - Childhood Memories

Children today mark the opening day of the Christmas two days after Halloween. When I was a child in Hamtramck (Michigan, near Detroit) the Christmas Season began at the most, two weeks before Christmas. It seemed that the snow was piled up to at least nose height and the air was cold and crisp. The daytime was not very exciting but evening and nighttime brought a different, magical quality to an otherwise mundane city. It was during that time that my family and other families would stroll through the commercial district. Stroll? yes, stroll. The world was just coming out of the Depression and now we were engaged in a world war. Who had a car or needed one?

Hamtramck was a town that had a very, very large Polish population with a sprinkling of other nationalities: it was a city within a city and the joke was; you needed a passport to leave Detroit and enter Hamtramck. The stores of the commercial district were decked in holiday finery and all the merchandise was geared toward children and gift giving. You could hear the Oo's and Ah's of the little tykes as they eyed those toys and the hoped that Santa Clause might find some room in his sleigh for that bright new train set or the latest doll. There was the food stores that had their own peculiar aroma that still lingers today. Balkan bakery always made fresh bread on Friday evenings and the smell of hot, fresh Pumpernickel bread sent a heavenly aroma to the streets that would make your mouth water. Inside there were other types of bread including that braided one or the one filled with raisins. There was the store that only sold cakes and pastries and the store that only sold meats (Kowalski, of course, you can visit it HERE). It seemed as though that street was crowded with people.

Perhaps three days before Christmas a stop at the Christmas tree lot was in order and the smell of fresh (without fire retardent) pine was almost overwhelming. There were no fake trees to be seen anywhere, heaven forbid a fake Christmas tree. On the way home and tired from shopping or whatever you called it the way was lit by the Nativity scenes set up in the front of homes and each one was worth a stop and look. Often times we were greeted by the homeowner and his wife who offered the admirers of their work a hot toddy or other type of drink. I do remember my Mom and Dad with us children in tow arriving home with a lot of holiday cheer.

The Christmas tree was never set up before Christmas Eve and this was always a family chore with mom and grandma acting as supervisors of the handy work. After all the work was done, we children would seat ourselves at dad's feet or on his lap as he read a rendition of the Night Before Christmas, afterward we were given a hot drink (tea with honey and a shot of Three Feathers) and sent to bed. Our cover in bed was a very big blanket filled with goose and duck feathers, it was very large and kept us very warm on a cold night but it hardly weighed anything: I can pronounce the Polish word for that blanket ( pierzyna ) but I cannot spell it. In the morning we would find exactly one (1) present under the tree but it was always something that we would treasure and use for more than one or two years. We knew that it was Santa Clause who had left the present because the cookies and milk were all gone. Our second treat would be the stockings that were filled with nuts, fruit and a few candies. Being poor or wealthy had no meaning for us children. The only poor people we could think of were the families in Europe that were devastated by a terrible war and everything seemed gray for them. Who could be poor when there was a loving family to take care of you and childhood problems when they popped up. Who could be poor when there was a roof over you head and food on the table? Who could be poor when there was cloths to put on you back and a coat to keep you warm. The greatest wealth of all is the memories of a childhood Christmas. I knew when I was grown up because I was permitted to attend Midnight Mass and sing Christmas Carols on the way home. They were mostly in English but I do recall one carol that was sung in Polish. Today I do not know how to sing it or say it in Polish but I thing the English translation was "Come to Bethlehem" ( - "Przybiezeli do Betlejem", you can listen to the melody here, click at the title). If I heard those Polish Carols today, a long dormant memory of them would awaken and I could say "yes, I remember those from my childhood". Memories are the gift that keeps on gibing. It is sometimes a good thing that bad memories are quickly forgotten and the good memories are retained. In a way this can be called forgiveness. It's all relative.*

* It must be remembered that the events that I recall mostly took place during World War 2 and there was that slight inconvenience called Rationing. Many younger people do not recall rationing and there would be a national outcry if it happened today. To make it short, people were restricted in the amount of food or other necessities (today) that could be bought, including milk, sugar, butter and meat. Here was the magic indeed. A wonderful Christmas feast could be laid out for all to enjoy and the thought of where it came from was never questioned. Perhaps it was God or his Angels that provided or maybe it was the Spirit of Christmas but most likely a little black market or under the table dealings were involved. No matter, the feast was there.

Robert F. Stachurski

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Check Robert's article about Lent and Easter in Hamtramck. Here is more about Poles in Hamtramck: Where do Poles live in the USA - Detroit and other Immigration Centers . Check Hamtramck website and go through the virtual tour (with photographs) of historic Hamtramck.

Check also more Christmas articles in Polish website.

by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn on December 20th, 2003 (article #150)

I recommend a book describing a personal story - from a working class family of Polish immigrants Hamtramck Haunts by Charlotte L. Cavanary

Check our
Christmas Music Store for a wide selection of Polish and Polish-American carols and also some Christmas books

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