AFTER CHRISTMAS dinner, my grandmother sings Lithuanian folk songs. The adults, meanwhile, sip "virytos," an amber-colored Lithuanian beverage. One literally sips virytos since in addition to honey, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, virytos contains 190-proof grain alcohol. My grandmother's hands rest lightly on the table; a small glass of virytos is beside them.
Her voice is plaintive. The look on her face reminds me of sunlight coming through the living-room window. Her songs tell of "Lietuva," Lithuania, a country on the Baltic sea between Poland, Latvia and Russia. The old country is a place of stunning greenness, she sings. Flaxen-haired girls pick ripened grapes and wear amber jewelry. In the countryside, stones roll over and recite poems.
Invariably, my grandmother talks about her mother, whom she left in Lithuania in 1909, the year she was sent to America as part of an arranged marriage. Grandmother is bitter about the Communists, who have taken over her homeland and have sent her family to Siberia. She plans to return to Lithuania, when the Communists are overthrown and when she can travel freely and without risk.
But it is 1956, and she has heard horror stories of people who have returned to the old country, only to be imprisoned or sent to Siberia on trumped-up charges. Whenever a television newscast shows pictures of Siberia, my grandmother looks for family members and family resemblances.
My mother and father, my aunts and uncles, my five cousins and I have just finished a Christmas dinner, which, in addition to turkey and ham, always includes several Lithuanian foods, such as wild mushrooms, marinated herring, "kugeles" or potato pudding, poppy-seed bread, "koseliens" or jellied pigs' feet, Lithuanian sausage, and "krustais" or cookies for dessert.
In the old country, my grandmother tells us, the big meal occurs on Christmas Eve. It is a meatless meal and consists of 12 dishes (for the 12 apostles). The dishes sit on a spotless white tablecloth (symbolic of the white altar cloth used in church), decorated with candles and fir boughs. Live flowers are considered inappropriate to the spirit of the season. A handful of hay is spread evenly on the tablecloth to remind people that Jesus Christ was born in a stable. After dinner some of the hay is used to tell fortunes.
The mixing of Roman Catholicism and fortune telling does not surprise us. Like most Lithuanians, we are strict Roman Catholics. And like most Lithuanians, we are very superstitious, believing in dreams and signs. Perhaps we are superstitious because Lithuania was not Christianized until the 14th century and so held on to its pantheistic beliefs much longer than other European countries. Lithuanians believe there will be a green Easter if there is a white Christmas. They believe that eating herring on Christmas -- no matter how salty and unpleasant the taste -- ensures a successful new year.
Christmas dinner always begins as my mother breaks and distributes the "holy bread" that the priest from Saint Alphonsus church brought to our house several weeks before Christmas. We live in Pikesville, and are member of Saint Charles parish. But our first parish is always the Lithuanian parish, Saint Alphonsus, in downtown Baltimore.
If I complain that the church is gaudy and contains too many statues, I am told that it doesn't matter, because Saint Alphonsus is our real parish. This is the church where we were baptized. This is the church from which we all will buried. When we are buried, the priest will sing the Angelus in Lithuanian, as our bodies are lowered into the earth. Since this is my privilege as a Lithuanian and as a member of Saint Alphonsus parish, I shouldn't rock the boat.
Holy bread or "dievo pyragai" (God's cakes) is pink or white, flat and rectangular, measuring about three inches by five inches. It tastes like the wafers used at Mass. It is decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
At dinner, I try to eat a little of everything, not because I want to, but because it is bad luck not to. I especially love the mushrooms, which my mother flavors with onions and bacon. My grandmother picked the mushrooms herself. It pleases her when I eat them. Since she loves me more than anyone else (at least this is what she tells me), I want to please her.
Raised in the country outside the city of Kaunas, my grandmother knows how to tell the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones. Sometime in the autumn, as part of a yearly ritual, my grandmother picks mushrooms for Christmas. My uncle, who is an artist in his spare time, once painted her walking in the woods looking for mushrooms. He called the painting, "The Mushroom Picker." My grandmother keeps this painting on her bedroom wall where I look at it often.
I notice how realistically he has painted the leaves on the trees -- red, orange, green. Yet he has painted my grandmother from the back. One sees her small, solid body, but not her face and eyes, which are an amazing color of blue and violet. I wonder if my uncle does not think he is good enough to paint her face.
I do not realize this at the time, but one day memories and this painting will be all that I have of my grandmother, my uncle, my mother and the Christmas dinners we shared many years ago.
Diane Scharper teaches at Towson State University. A version of this essay appears in "A Taste of Catholicism: Recipes for the Body and Soul," published by Cathedral Foundation Press.
Pub Date: 12/25/96