REFLECTIONS: Christmas and traditions

It’s the day after Christmas.

And, as before, we celebrated our family Christmas in Traverse City a week prior, last Sunday.

It seems as our family matures (my word!), opportunities to get together as a unit become further and further apart. 

And to pick a date that works for everyone is always a challenge.

The family is spread out … and grandkids have their own agendas too.  Thus goes life …. repeating and repeating itself again.

BUT … when it comes Christmastime, we all try to spend it together with  my 99 year old mom.

Mom, being her normal Bohemian self,  refers to getting together on any day other than the 25th as the “fake” Christmas.

She’s insistent there are two Christmases in our household: a “fake” one, when the whole family gets together, and the “real” one on the 25th.

And yep, you guessed it … Wife Susan and I once again … do both!

Thinking back this year, I reminisced long and hard once again and got nostalgic about my Bohemian heritage.

And once again, I did some further research on the Czech Republic Christmas and discovered how it paralleled my very own Christmas years ago in Traverse City.

Christmas in the Czech Republic begins with the visit of St. Nicholas on December 6th and ends with the visit of the Three Kings.

In the Czech Republic, St. Nicholas is called Svaty Mikalas and is believed to climb to earth down from heaven on a golden rope along with his companions: an angel and a whip-carrying devil.

In the Czech Republic, a girl can tell her future (according to tradition) by putting a cherry twig in water on December 4th.  If the twig blossoms before Christmas Eve, the girl will marry sometime during the year.

The famous King Wenceslas of the Christmas Carol was a real King in the Czech Republic.  His goodness and his beliefs in Christianity infuriated his mother, and his brother murdered him on the Church steps.  Before he died, he asked for God’s mercy for the brother’s evil act and later became the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

Christmas is a quiet and peaceful religious time in that Old World country. They fast for one day and then have baked carp for Christmas dinner the next  St. Nicholas visits that evening and brings good children gifts, and for children who are bad, the devil is said to come with switches and coal.

At midnight, most families go to Holy Mass or Pasterka as it is known.  On Christmas Day, the churches are filled with evergreens and Christmas trees and the celebration goes on for three days.

During this time, Czechs feast with soup made of cod roe and tempt each other with tales of a mythical golden pig.

It amazed me how time begat little change when transgressed to the New World.

Heritage is very dear to me.  Who we are. Where we come from.  And what brought us to where we are today.

Every few years I repeat a column I used years ago about Anne, my maternal grandmother.  I hope that repeating it again will possibly result it in being seen by someone who has not seen it before … and gets that urge to start scratching for a part of their past that might be itching.

For those who have seen this before, repetition is good. It’s a perfect time for you to reflect back on YOUR past if you haven’t already.  After all, you DO feel that little itch, don’t you?

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Her name was Anna Altrichter.

But everyone called her Annie.

She was one of six children of John and Katrina Stanek.                                                                                                                                                  Immigrants from the Province of Bohemia in Czechoslovakia, John and Katrina were proud farmers who helped pioneer Leelanau County — hewing a living from its virgin pine forests with orchard plantings of cherry and fruit trees.

During her youth, Annie rode horses (and often, even an old sow or two), drove sleighs, tended crops, planted fruit trees and helped with their harvest.

She became an accomplished seamstress, had a very “special”way with wildflowers and was an incredible cook.

John Altrichter saw that too.  A tailor by trade, steeped in all the Old World Bohemian traditions, he had recently immigrated from Nevetskinod, a small farm town outside Prague.

He was Young.  He was Handsome.  A member of the Czechoslovakian Acrobatic Troupe and a member of the Bohemian Brotherhood, John took Annie by storm.

They were soon married and a tailor shop was opened in Traverse City on the northwest corner of Front Street and U.S. 31.

They were my maternal grandparents…

That was many many years ago. Granny A left us to join her husband John long ago.  Memories of her, however, never will.

At age 90, she decided to quit driving. 

“The garage opening got smaller and the car wider,” she explained.

Two years prior to that, daughter Arlene (my mother) caught her washing outside windows — high on a two story ladder. 

“Time you got some outside help,” she reasoned. 

Anne wasn’t happy, but on the verge of turning 89, succumbed to her daughter’s frantic request.

Annie loved soup, homemade pies, her beer (or two) a day, her family and grandkids, big-time wrestling, a hot toddy (to allow her to sleep) and her Bohemian Preservation Society.  The latter was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the rummage sale she and her sisters would hold twice a year to raise money for charity — and for those less fortunate.

Two years prior to her death, Annie was with us in Big Rapids for several days. 

She needed a walker.  But that was more a nuisance than a hindrance.

Bright eyed and white haired, she always insisted on pitching right in.  There was no discussion about it allowed.

And at night— as in years gone past— following talk and toddy, you’d find her heading for bed with her head enrobed in a hair net, under which one could find the most amazing array of curlers and tissue papers!

A memory never to be lost.

The following year, Annie left us. To join her first love, John, on the very day that would have been their 75th anniversary.

As a youngster growing up in a very traditional Bohemian family, Christmas dinner was always celebrated on the eve before.

Breaded fish was always the entrée, prepared by Grandfather John.

Granny A made the Shunkeflecke (traditional homemade noodles and diced fresh ham), poppy seed and prune filled kolaches, Bohemian horn bread and naturally, fresh whipped potatoes and butter.

For some unknown reason, lima beans were always added.  Try as I could, I never figured that out.

Dessert?  Homemade cherry and pumpkin pies, naturally!

A Czechoslovakian prayer was always special.  Spoken in Bohemian by  Gramps.  And the evening was ever more meaningful when relatives from the Old Country sent a note saying a pickled pig was hanging in the Christmas tree — a sign of good health and healthy harvest.

Christmas morn was always ushered in with the smell of fresh brewed coffee,  strong tea and broiled Hoska—a very special Christmas bread made only once a year by designated bakers to proclaim the Joyousness of Christmas Day.  And to give thanks for a bountiful year of harvest, good friends and family.

I missed Annie—Granny A—again this year.  But as in years past, I was at ease realizing she was spending Christmas once again with husband John and son-in-law John (my father) her grandson Cris (my brother) and so many of my other friends that have left before me.

And this year, as before, I shared my Hoska with my mother and my wife and with my children, grandchildren and dear friends—and I reminisced once again of Christmases past—and my time with Granny A.

And in reflection, I once again gave thanks.  For family.

For friendships.  For Life.  For allowing me to join in the celebration of one more festive holiday season.

And you?

Did you remember?

Did you remember those that were not able to be with you this holiday season?  And hopefully, did you remembered to love and give a special hug to those who were?

And finally, now that you think about it … just sit back and reminisce a bit.

I’ll bet you’ll find a Granny A was lurking somewhere along your family tree too!

Have a very Healthy, Happy and Joyous Christmas Season.

And a very special thanks to you, Anna–— thanks again for the memories.

Jack Batdorff is the chairman of the Pioneer Group. Email him at jbatdorff@pioneergroup.com.

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Posted by Jack Batdorff

Jack Batdorff is the chairman of the Pioneer Group. E-mail him at jbatdorff@pioneergroup.com.

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