Slavic Holiday preparations – You know how when you were younger, you would see your parents doing something and swear you will never be like that? While this may be true for a lot of things, there is one phenomenon I’ve observed in all the Slavs, once they get out of their teen years. This is what I call the Holiday madness. It comes in stages, and as I know I will succumb to it in a few weeks (and may already have, a bit, by decorating the holiday tree in our office a month in advance).
I am taking you all with me on a journey through the stages of that special Holiday Madness with a decidedly Slavic taste. You can tell it’s coming by some very telling and dangerous signs such as these:
1. The draft is no longer the enemy.
This first, and perhaps the most shocking of all signs is the fact that the most dangerous killer known to Slavs stops being the enemy. All windows are to be thrown open and everything is to be aired out!
This is closely linked to the cleaning frenzy which usually infects the females of the household, and which sends children, spiders and all pets scurrying for shelter, lest they be drafted into the cleaning brigade as well. I was never quite fast enough, and had no obligations, and was sent out to beat the carpets, wash windows and, since I was the smallest one, climb on and behind the largest pieces of furniture to dust them because heaven forbid a guest takes a look behind the almost ceiling high bedroom closet and sees a speck of dust there. To this day, I am convinced the winter holidays were invented so that the children can be available to mothers, sisters and grandmothers to help with the cleaning. The males seem to catch a similar bug, though it usually sends them in the direction of cleaning the garage, the tool shed or re-stacking and chopping up all the wood in a five kilometer radius “just in case we get snowed in”. Of course, at the end of it all, the mistress of the house will still say to any guest that walks in: “Please excuse the mess!”, and the masters will insist on just popping out to chop a bit more because we are running low.
2. Grocery shopping
Now, everyone goes a bit loopy around the holidays when it comes to stocking up on groceries, but you haven’t seen anything until a Slavic family goes to get provisions. I have friends who are professional soldiers who swear that the amount of food their family gets for the first half of the holiday season is what an entire regiment eats in about a month, but as I’ve had it explained to me: You never know who will show up, and my goodness, imagine if you didn’t have enough food to offer guests. No grandma, I don’t think that 5 kilos of margarine and 20 kilos of flour is really necessary, and those two hams, and perhaps we could just maybe skip the 5 kilo tub of mayo? This, however, brings me to the next point:
3. The house becomes a restaurant.
If you think I was joking about the amount of food bought, I really wasn’t. One Christmas I counted some 10 different types of cakes and cookies, and my grandma was a bit on the toned down side. This is of course not counting the special mayo salad, the cabbage rolls, the arranged plates of cured meats and cheeses, the roast pork, the cold beef with horseradish sauce, various soups and breads and the “fasting” meals- baked carp wrapped in bacon or fried fish, or cod stew. And if you thought the males are spared of this type of madness, sorry, because…
4. The house becomes a bar.
There is beer, there are at least two types of wine (white and red), at least one of them from your own “vineyard” (three grapevines you grow yourself and about 500 kilos of bought grapes), and more spirits than you can count. You have your bought spirits- whiskey, cognac, brandy, and then there are the home made moonshine varieties- grape spirit (because you won’t just throw away that half fermented grape cake), plum brandy, herb brandy, and any old fruit you can imagine brandy, all of which need to be tried, tested, and judged against the last year’s batch, and maybe, just maybe, if they really, really like you, the batch from about a decade ago which was declared the best they ever made.
5. The decorations
Look, don’t even think about buying a whole new set of decorations. Not gonna happen. Ever. I’m pretty sure that once a Slav marries, the parents from both sides donate a portion of their holiday ornaments to the new couple so they have something to start off with. My grandfather set up three (I am not even kidding here) sets of holiday lights on the tree. The oldest one being something he bought in the late 50’s. And of course he still had some spare replacement bulbs. The ornaments ranged from their first ornaments – nuts wrapped in aluminium foil and ancient pieces of silver paper wrapped candy from their first holidays together up over the years as they added bits here and there. Beautiful and incredibly fragile glass-blown ornaments were hung with the same love and attention and love as plastic baubles and twenty year old tinsel and lametta. The tree itself was probably one of the less representative ones, with holes drilled in and extra branches shoved into those, but once it was properly decorated, you couldn’t really see it anyway, so all was well and beautiful.
In the end, despite, or perhaps because of all this holiday madness, putting the top ornament on the tree was a crowning moment of all the preparations, all the chaos and all the fuss. You can now sit back, grab some mulled wine and keep your hands off the cookies and the cured meats because those are for the guests!