By Tom Piatak
No other time of year brings up memories and stirs up emotions as Christmas does. This is simply a fact, as undoubted as the mortality of Marley at the beginning of Dickens’ immortal tale. And the fact of Christmas’ emotional power suggests another fact: Its Divine origin.
More so than any other time of year, Christmas is tied up with memory. For me, a quintessential Christmas memory reminds you of something sweet that you had forgotten. That memory points to a future you hope for, and it is tied to the Infant you were taught to adore, from your earliest days.
I had such a memory early this morning, when I heard, for the first time in years, a Polish Christmas carol, Przsytapmy do Szopy, a song I first heard some 50 years ago. I found it on YouTube, posted by a Polish organist, playing the song and singing it himself:
Then I found an older recording by a church choir near Warsaw. This video appealed to me because of the quality of the performance and the cover art on the CD, reminiscent of the images found on the oplatki shared and eaten on Christmas Eve in Poland and wherever else Poles went in the world. Each family Christmas Eve dinner, called to mind by that cover art, holds a host of memories for me.
And here is a Polish-English version:
Nothing is unusual about the deep religiosity of the lyrics, because all Polish carols are about the Nativity of Jesus Christ. None, that I know of, focus instead on snow, shopping, Santa, reindeer, elves, or even festive greenery.
Przsystapmy do Szopy is definitely one of the first dozen Polish carols I ever heard, because it is on the only recording of Polish Christmas music I knew as a child. My Grandma Piatak’s copy of Li’l Wally the Polka King and the St. Stanislaus Choral Group of Michigan City, Indiana singing Polish Christmas carols.
Przsystapmy do Szopy is also one of the carols my non-Polish Mom remembers from her Polish Catholic grade school in Youngstown, Ohio, St. Stanislaus Kostka, because she would sometimes sing along with my Grandma and the record.
It is also one of the Polish Christmas carols that helped stir in me a life-long love of the genre, because it has a lively, happy sound unusual in the religious carols typically sung in the English-speaking world.
I now know dozens of Polish carols and can even sing four or five of them without causing music lovers to flee or speakers of Polish to cringe. Indeed, the other night, friends actually asked me to sing a Polish carol at a Christmas gathering at work.
Finally, I found a video of St. John Paul II, battling back against Parkinson’s disease, by singing the carol, with all the strength he could summon:
By the time I found that video, the tears were really welling up. Parkinson’s is a disease I now know, and John Paul’s singing reminded me of the friends I have met with the disease and the friends I have met who use their talents and time to help us in our own battles against the malady, for which there is still no cure.
In a few moments, I was reminded of so many things — of the Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary and everything else going on in Bethlehem at the first Christmas, of my beloved Grandmother and my dearest Mother, of friends at work and friends in the battle against the disease that afflicts us, of a personal hero who suffered terribly with the same disease but who now enjoys the Eternal Life I hope to share. As Christmas memories go, it doesn’t get much more powerful than that.
May you and your loved ones have a very Merry and Blessed Christmas!
And may you keep being reminded of what Christmas is for years to come!