Different traditions, kindred holiday spirits
The holiday season is a time of excitement, family, and traditions. We see it played out on television and in movies. It's a time that makes it easy to believe that our celebrations and traditions are everyone's. It's easy to forget what a diverse population makes up the Island. Some of our neighbors are Irish, Russian, Czech, Asian and Brazilian, and each culture brings different traditions.
Oak Bluffs resident Tatiana Pavlenko, whose family lives in Russia, explains some Russian traditions.
"We celebrate Christmas on January 7, because in Russia we go by the Chinese calendar," she said. "Our main holiday is New Year's Eve. Everyone has to open a window at midnight to let the spirit of the New Year in," she said. "At the start of the New Year, you let go and leave all the bad."
There are also many family oriented traditions celebrated in Russia. The Russian Santa is called Grandfather Frost, and he brings New Year's treats.
"A tradition we do with the young ladies is to predict their future man on Christmas Eve," said Ms. Pavlenko. "We write it on a clean piece of paper and then put it on a plate and burn it. It's just a game, but back in the old villages people used to believe in it.
"We open presents on New Year's eve instead of Christmas day. But in my family one person is in charge of picking a gift from the tree. They know whose name is on the present, and they can tell that person to dance, sing, or come up with whatever. The person has to do whatever they're told, or else they don't get to open their gifts."
And as for food - "We always eat olivie, a Russian salad, at New Year's Eve dinner. It has everything in it, like peas, eggs, ham, potatoes, carrots. We also have a sweet tooth, so we have cake, cookies, desserts, all from scratch," Ms. Pavlenko said.
"In the Czech Republic we celebrate Christmas on the evening of 24th," said Edgartown's Klara Moseman, whose family lives in Prague, Czech Republic. "When I think of the holidays, I think of spending time with the family. I try to go back to Prague to celebrate the holidays every other year.
In the Czech Republic, the children believe in Ježíšek, but like Santa, he brings gifts to good people, Ms. Moseman said. "I had never heard of Ježíšek coming in through the chimney; we say that he just comes in the house and leaves the presents."
The common sweets and treats found in America during the holidays are typically cookies, candy canes, and chocolate, none of which are familiar in the Czech Republic celebration.
"On New Year's Eve we have a family dinner with fish soup and carp, and we usually drink sparkling wine," said Ms. Moseman. "It's an important dinner; we always dress up nice, use the best tablecloths, china, the kinds of nice things you use for special occasions. People also buy poinsettias and put them around the house."
Another Czech tradition: "We used to sit in front of an open door somewhere in the house and throw a hat or a slipper over our head," Ms. Moseman said. "If the slipper landed behind us or behind the door, that means you'll probably be leaving the house."
And here's a decorating idea, described by Ms. Moseman: "Some people cut a walnut in two pieces and put a little candle in the middle. If you have four or five candles in walnuts you can float them in a bowl of water for decoration."
Ms. Moseman remembers how the holiday celebrations changed when she came to the States: "The holidays were different in a way that everyone celebrates Christmas in the morning. It didn't make sense to me," she said. "And sometimes people sing in groups at the door, but people in Czech sing carols more in the church or at a square."
Elaine Weintraub, chairman of the history department at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, lives in West Tisbury, but she has fond memories of Christmas in Ireland, her birthplace.
"When I came to America, I learned that it was more diverse," she said. "In Ireland you can always tell when it's Christmas time. Christmas is not celebrated as much here. When I think of Christmas, I picture all the candles in the windows, because you are more inclined to see those than trees. Everyone in Ireland lights a candle in the window.
"Christmas is considered an enormous family event in Ireland. We eat Christmas pudding, which is sort of like plum pudding, and it's boiled for hours, then you put it on a plate and pour rum over it and set fire to it before you eat it. Sometimes you might find a silver coin in it, and that means that something good will happen during the New Year."
Ms. Weintraub recalled a tradition similar to our carolers: "Wren boys come dressed up to your door, sort of like trick-or-treating, and play music for you. Usually you'll give them a treat, like whatever's around the house, such as something to eat or drink."
The wren, a small bird, symbolizes the old year, while the robin symbolizes the New Year to come. To ensure that the passage from old year to new could take place, it was common that on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) a group of local boys would hunt a wren. Nowadays, this singing group is referred to as "wren boys."
"In Ireland, we have Christmas crackers, which are made of paper. Inside of them are a hat, a little motto, and a gift of some sort, and two people pull on each end of it."
And of course, there's music. "There is a lot of Celtic music during the holiday season, and winter solstice," she said.
Now the season is upon us. Ms. Moseman will return to Prague this year to celebrate the holidays with her family. Ms. Pavlenko plans to celebrate the holiday season on-Island, and Ms. Weintraub will travel to Ireland.
Caitlyn Clark, a senior at MVRHS, is an intern at The Times.