Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Old Polish Christmas by Catherine Czerkawska

The Amber Heart on Kindle - Polish & Christmassy
When I was wondering whether to do a Christmas 'special offer' on one of my books and also wondering which one to choose, I found myself trying to decide between a couple of suitable books. But really, when it came down to choices, it was a no-brainer. It had to be the Amber Heart. Even the cover seems kind of Christmassy and in my heart, when I think about this book, I think about Poland at Christmas.

It is a big doorstop of a book but then it's a big story. Epic. Romantic. Heart rending. When one of my previous agents sent it out, she relayed a letter from an acquisitions editor who said that she had stayed up all night reading it and weeping. They didn't acquire it though. Poland was a non starter as a setting. Now if it had been Russia ...

No point at all in telling them that Eastern European borders have been so fluid and so deadly, in consequence, that this novel, set firmly in that part of mid-nineteenth century Poland called Galicia would, if set in the same physical place today, have to be in the Ukraine.

I grew up with a Polish father and an English/Irish mum. Christmas was one time of the year when we became thoroughly Polish, and celebrated in the Polish way, with a Christmas eve dinner and Polish carols like this one  Lulajze Jezuniu, that always made my late dad cry. Then, on Christmas Day, we did it in the English way as well. Nothing like having the best of both worlds.

But really, in order to celebrate in the Polish way, you need to be in Poland. I spent a couple of Christmases in Poland when I was in my twenties, teaching EFL in Finland and then when I was working for the British Council at Wroclaw University.

Wojciech Kossak - one of the family forebears - was the artist.
I used the setting - and perhaps even these characters - in the novel. 
It was magical.

I still remember wandering through a big indoor market in Warsaw, with it's peculiar scent of horseradish, smoked cheese, apples. I remember the extreme cold, the snow and the plentiful mistletoe for sale on the street flower stalls.

On Christmas Eve my father's cousin and her partner took me to a house in the Zoliborz suburb of the city where the Kossak family - relatives by marriage - still lived. The Christmas Eve meal was traditional and extraordinary: twelve small but delicious 'courses' with beetroot soup, lots of fish but no meat. Lots of flavoured vodkas too. And makowiec - a luscious Christmas cake made with ground poppy seeds and rich yeast pastry. Straw was placed under the tablecloth and if you 'drew the short straw', woe betide you because your life would be a short one as well. To be honest, I think they made sure that all the straws were fairly long!

Great Uncle Karol Kossak: my favourite uncle.
I can't remember everyone who sat around that table but there were lots of them and they were all related in some way, however remotely. They had to place me very firmly within the family - even though for most of them, I was only related by my great aunt Wanda's marriage. I was Julek's daughter, and Julek was the son of Wladyslaw who died in the war, and my Great Uncle Karol (Wladyslaw's friend) had married Wladyslaw's elder sister Wanda and they were the children of ... It went on and on, until they had established exactly who I was and where I belonged in the family hierarchy. I remember too that they kept a tortoise, a large one, that clicked and clattered across the wooden floors as the party progressed.

I think this is actually signed by one of the Kossak family. Note the Galicya name
Christmas Day involved a round of visits to other family members and friends throughout the city. In every house, I was offered a plate of the substantial hunter's stew called bigos and of course it was rude to refuse. I began to feel a bit like Dawn French in that episode of the Vicar of Dibley with all the Christmas Dinners.

It was a busy and blissful time.

But one thing that I remember perhaps more clearly than any other, was a friend of the family taking me around the walls of the old town of Warsaw, a perfect mediaeval town, destroyed by the Nazis not by overhead bombing, but its buildings deliberately and maliciously blown up from the ground, to prevent the people from ever returning.

Warsaw from the air, after the Warsaw Uprising. 
Except that they did return, and rebuilt it. It is a place with the most extraordinarily poignant and beautiful atmosphere. I remember walking along quiet alleyways on a cold, clear night, the twilight just coming on, and the lamps lit. I remember my cousin's friend Michael telling me about his wartime experiences, and how he could not come here now without thinking about all the people he knew who had died, but how he still loved the place anyway. Even now, thinking about it, brings a lump to my throat.

My dad in the snow, in Galicia, Poland.
The Amber Heart is set at a much earlier time - the mid 1800s. But my dad's stories informed it. Fortunately, because he died when he was only 68, I had encouraged him to write things down for me.  I used all kinds of stories that I had been told over the years about our fascinating family history. It's fiction, but it has a basis in some very intriguing facts. It's a snowy novel (but not always). It describes a traditional Christmas - but it describes a traditional Easter too.

All the same, if you read it, I think you'll see what I mean when I say that it always seems to me to be a Christmas novel - or perhaps I mean that it's a good long Christmas read. And for seven days beginning 24th December, you can download it onto your Christmas Kindle for the bargain price of 99p or 99c in the US.

And can I take this opportunity to wish all Authors Electric readers a very happy holiday season - and a new year that brings you all you could hope for.

Catherine Czerkawska
www.wordarts.co.uk

9 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

Beautiful blog post and I loved the Polish carol.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Chris. It's a lovely carol, isn't it? Always makes me feel Christmassy!

Mari Biella said...

I hope plenty of people snap up The Amber Heart, Catherine - it's a wonderful book, and deserves to be widely read! Happy holidays.

Lydia Bennet said...

Ooh a lovely snowy post, I love winter! How enriching your Polish ancestry has been for your life and work.

Elizabeth Kay said...

I first went to Poland in 1964, for Christmas, with my Polish father. (My English mother stayed at home, as we had a shop.) It was the first time he had been back for 25 years, and it was a very emotional occasion. His relatives lived in Krakow, and it was a magical experience. My memories are of a week spent in Zakopane, learning to ski on wooden skis, and the Christmas dinner of carp.I've been back several times since, but winter is always the most memorable. Lovely post, Catherine.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I remember you had said your father was Polish. Yes - forgot to mention the carp! We had that in Warsaw on Christmas eve as well. I've been to Krakow but I've never been to Zakopane, - would love to go. My artist great uncle used to specialise in painting pictures of 'mountain weddings'. I remember him being asked to 'add more feathers' to the hats in one picture and shouting 'Feathers! I'll give them more feathers!' and painting great big plumes on all the hats. Our son and his girlfriend went to Krakow for his birthday a month ago and thought it was magical.

Elizabeth Kay said...

My father was a war artist - this is a link to the Pinterest page I put up of some of his work.
http://www.pinterest.com/kfaddle/feliks-kay-krzewinski/

Reb MacRath said...

Well, I've just found another book to add to my list. Thanks for the intro and the lovely, heartfelt post.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Reb. And what lovely work, Elizabeth. Particularly like the cathedral in Lwow - dad spent part of his childhood in that city.