A Traditional Polish Christmas - Catherine Czerkawska

My dad.

My late father came to Yorkshire from Poland, at the end of the war, with one of the Polish regiments attached to the British army. He came via Italy and Monte Cassino, so he was lucky to survive. In Yorkshire, still a young man, he worked in a textile mill for a while - it was compulsory for 'refugee aliens' -  met and married my English-Irish mother, Kathleen, and went to night school, cycling home through smoky Leeds on wintry nights while I was a baby.

By the time he retired, he was a distinguished scientist, working as a visiting expert for UNIDO, with a double doctorate: a DSc as well as a PhD in biochemistry. He died in 1995 and I still miss him, but I think I miss him and my mother most at Christmas, especially on Christmas Eve, because we always managed to have a Polish celebration meal, reserving the turkey and plum pudding for Christmas Day.

My dad, my grandfather and grandmother, in Galicia, Eastern Poland
It can't have been quite the same as his childhood home in Eastern Poland for my dear dad but my mum did her best. He always lent a hand with the cooking, helping to make 'pierogi', a kind of hand made ravioli filled with a cheese and potatoes, beetroot soup and a fish course. We always had a real tree. We always had candles and put straw under the tablecloth and shared blessed wafers when we could get them. We played and sang Polish Christmas carols, and I do believe that my dad, who never once seemed to regret the past, but was always the most cheerful and positive of parents, shed the occasional tear. 
Little Lord Fauntleroy!

Before he died - because I knew that I would want to write about my impossibly romantic Polish family history one day - I spent many hours with him, questioning him about the past. He made wonderful notebooks and drawings for me, full of detail. Later, I used some of this material in two radio plays and drafted out a novel. I was planning a trilogy, but I was distracted by theatre and did very little with it. Then, a handful of years ago, I did a lot more research and rewrote it completely as a longer novel called The Amber Heart. 

My last agent tried to sell it but although he declared that it was a 'wonderful' story there was very little interest from publishers who - all too predictably - thought it was beautifully written, but couldn't see how to market it. Which is why I'll be publishing it to Kindle, around Easter 2012, all being well - although in slightly modified form. At some point, a less than sympathetic editor got his paws on it and at his suggestion, I took several chapters and incidents out of it. He - young, intellectual, over-confident -  wanted me to skip over much of the story and 'get to the end.' Later, I realised that if I were to think about my target readers, he would be the very last person on earth I would consider.

My handsome grandfather- Max de Winter lives.
To be fair, some of his suggestions were helpful, but I was always wary of many of them. Now that I look at the novel again, with the benefit of hindsight, (and a little more self confidence) I think I need to restore the lost chapters, split the whole thing into two novels - which is what it wants to be - and go back to my original idea of a trilogy. There's plenty of material. The Amber Heart will be followed by the Winged Hussar. Later, there will be a third, but I don't have a name for that yet, although I certainly have a story!
Dad in the snow.
Meanwhile, because we're so close to Christmas, here's a short extract from The Amber Heart, about a  nineteenth century Polish Christmas. The novel is set in the 1800s, in that part of Eastern Poland called Galicia, which was part of the Austro Hungarian empire. (Now it's in the Ukraine). Young Ukrainian, Piotro - having risked his own life to save the heroine, Maryanna, in a violent uprising - is wandering alone through the countryside, unable to return home for fear of reprisals, not quite sure where to go or what to do - and sick at heart for the woman he has loved and lost.

Inspiration from a picture by a great great great uncle.

Almost without realising it, he was heading very slowly north west, going gradually in the direction of Maryanna’s old home at Lisko. He was lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve with a family of Polish smallholders, who had been dismayed to discover that sickness in the family had left them with an odd number of guests at their table for their festive supper. Since this meant that one of their number would die, for sure, during the ensuing year, the head of the household had rushed into the lane outside his house, looking for somebody, anybody, to make up the numbers.

Piotro had been lurking outside, sniffing hungrily at the savoury smells coming from the house. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He washed as best he could in the butt of icy water at the back of the house and the farmer’s wife found him a well-worn but clean linen shirt in honour of the occasion. His eyes were dazzled by the unaccustomed light and the heat of the room bemused him, making his head swim. He swayed and clutched at the back of a wooden settle to steady himself and tried to mind his manners.

In each corner of the room stood sheaves of rye, wheat, barley and oats, to ensure a plentiful harvest for the coming year. There was straw on the floor and a thin layer of hay on the table-top, covered with white linen. The company sat down to eat and the farmer broke the blessed wafer, spread with honey, and handed it to each guest in turn, including Piotro in this ritual with a smile.

‘Welcome, stranger! Welcome in God’s name, and eat!’

The supper was traditionally meatless but very plentiful – the family had been saving for this all year - and Piotro ate his fill of beetroot soup, pike in jelly, fried carp, smoked eels and pierogi, dumplings shaped like little ears filled with potato, onions and cabbage. There was dense, creamy cheese cake, spicy honey cake, luscious poppy seed roll and the traditional dish of kutia. At the less decorous end of the meal, the young boys of the family vied with each other in tossing spoonfuls of the grain and poppy seed mixture up to the ceiling which, when it stuck there, signified luck and a good harvest for the following year. The family were scrupulously polite to Piotro, attending to his needs but worrying him with few questions. Afterwards he was allowed to sleep beside the kitchen fire and in the morning he went on his way, laden with a good supply of food.
If you want to know what happened before - and what happens next - and I warn you, it's all impossibly romantic, all very Dr Zhivago, but also based on truth - you'll have to wait for me to get the book out there - by Easter 2012, I hope!

You can read a little more about all this and a few other things on my new website at www.wordarts.co.uk , beautifully designed (I think!) by a company called Paligap, in Ayr.

Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski


Anonymous said…
Fascinating stuff!
Kathleen Jones said…
Wonderful family history Catherine - just waiting to be out there - What a gift! I will look forward to your book in 2012.
Anonymous said…
That's a lovely and highly intriguing excerpt - I look forward to reading the rest!
Your Dad would be so proud...
Jan Needle said…
To wspaniałe, Panno Czerkawska
Dan Holloway said…
Absolutely fascinating.

Have you read 22 Britannia Road? It's been nominated for a fistful of prizes this year, and I would have thought has created considerable demand for a book like yours, especially one that's based on a true story.
Haven't read it, Dan, but have certainly read about it! I would hope it might create demand - but I always get the feeling that I suggest something for which they say there's 'no market' and then a few years later find that there certainly is a market, but by then, I'm told 'oh, it's been done'! I perhaps won't read it while I'm working on this. Which leads me to something which may be of interest to other writers - I try to avoid fiction about the area/time period/theme I'm working on while I'm writing. I wonder if anyone else does the same? I read lots of other things, histories, first hand accounts and so on, but never fiction if I can help it. I find it very distracting - wonder if anyone else does too?
Dan Holloway said…
I certainly find myself being taken up very easily in the style fo anyone I'm reading, so I'll often read something at completely the other end of the spectrum from whatever I'm working on. On the other hand I'll use music specifically because it gets me into a particular mindset.
Yes - I'm very much the same. Listen to music, but if I read too much fiction, I find myself echoing other people's style. I'm rereading Nicholas Nickleby at the moment but I'm not sure that would 'leak into' my voice quite so easily! I do love it though. There was a time when I was obsessively reading Barbara Pym - I love her books - but for a while, everything I wrote seemed to be in her precise and measured tones.
Sue Purkiss said…
Fascinating - am very much looking forward to your book, Catherine. Am writing a book loosely based on my father's experiences as a POW in Poland, and have also got to know the country a little because of my son's Polish partner - so your book will be really interesting!
And it sounds as if your book will be fascinating too!
Sue Purkiss said…
Well - the subject matter certainly is. As for the book - we'll see!
Hi Catherine
I'm a bit late to make a comment but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading the novel/s. I was also interested to read the comments, especially Sue and Dan's comments. I launched my first novel (The Blue Suitcase) at the end of last year, which was inspired by diaries and letters I found after my Mother's death - my mother was a German Christian girl growing up between 1932-1947 in Lower Silesia (part of Germany up until 1945, when it was handed over to Poland). I never imagined I'd write such a book but after translating her diaries and letters I was so shocked I felt compelled to tell her story. I spent a lot of time researching the period and place - and read both fiction and non-fiction books. But when I actually came to sitting down and writing the story, I couldn't read fiction, like you and Dan, I found I was being influenced by whoever I was reading at the time. Okay regards publishing it, well, I won't talk about the numerous 'positive rejections' I got (hem!), but in the end my husband ( who has publishing and writing experience) set up a small press and we published it both in paperback and Kindle form. Since the launch of The Blue Suitcase, the interest in it has been incredible. In fact in the last couple of months it has been in the top ten in the UK Kindle chart for Family Relationships and Waterstones in Edinburgh listed it as one of their staff Xmas reads. Whenever I have talked about it - in schools, libraries, bookshops – the amount of people who have shown an interest in and/or have a connection to Poland and its history, has been incredible. I suppose what I am saying is, I think there will be a great demand for your book/s (and your book Sue!). Onwards :)
A very cheering comment - and I'm off to download your book to my Kindle (but I might not read it till I've finally finished and launched The Amber Heart, by Easter 2012, hopefully!) I always thought that there would be a lot of interest in Poland - let's face it, Poles and Scots (and the Irish too) are alike in that they seem to have travelled and settled all over the world. I'm so very glad your book is doing well - another success story to inspire us.
Sue Purkiss said…
You know, I think we've got something going on here...
Thanks for downloading the book, Catherine! Very kind. Hope you find it engaging and be really interested to know how you find it - whenever that may be. Look forward to reading the Amber Heart Easter time-ish!

Yes, Sue, I think we do have something going here!!!!

Have a lovely Christmas and here's to productive 2012!!

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