Monday, December 24, 2012

The Things that Matter

December ice (02)

When my siblings and I were growing up, Christmas Eve was the special night of Kūčios, the family meal in vigil of the commemoration of Christ's birth. There were the rituals (communal sharing of apple and Communion wafer); the foods (kugelis); the desserts (ausuakai); the licit sip(s!) of strong honey liqueur (vititus); the discussions (the was-Adam-or-Eve-to-blame argument, always won by mother and sister).

And there were the Christmas tales. One my father would tell was that of a Kūčios of his childhood in the 1920s, the story of The Empty Chair. These are his words.


Christmas Eve at my childhood home in Brooklyn, New York was a time of joyous fulfillment, when the four weeks of preparation during Advent culminated in the ceremony of Kūčios, the traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve meal. It was the most important family event of the year, when all its members, even those who had married and left home to live in faraway places, felt drawn to join in the ritual.

My wife and I try to carry on the Kūčios tradition in our own family. When the bright star of Christmas Eve becomes visible in the winter sky, we gather around our table for family prayers. Then we kiss the family crucifix, and share our Christmas wafers (plotkeles) and one large apple.

As years pass, I repeat those stories that accompany these old customs, just as my father used to do: of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, an act whose disobedience involved us all and required the birth of the Savior to redeem, and of the sharing the wafer and the apple, which symbolized the family's unity and its spiritual kinship with the rest of mankind through Adam.

One year not too long ago, a chair at our Kūčios table was empty for the first time. Our daughter, who was then studying at the University of Innsbruck, planned to visit St. Peter's in Rome on Christmas Eve for the midnight mass. She had asked that we keep open a place at the table for her. Since the family Kūčios began at 6 PM, it would coincide with the ceremonial opening of the Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's celebrated by the Pope himself.

Looking at my daughter's empty chair, I was reminded of another empty seat, many year's ago, in my parents' home on a Christmas Eve.

It was the depth of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce in Brooklyn, and my parents could not even afford to buy a Christmas tree. The empty chair belonged to my grandfather. My family was celebrating Kūčios and grandfather was missing.


Grandfather was our favorite. We called him Tevukas (Little Father) and (always) spoke with him in Lithuanian, as we did with our parents. He was tall and thin, and had a large gray mustache which curled up the side of his mouth.

Tevukas had the irrepressible spirit of a young child deep within him. He would often come to our flat on Hope Street in Brooklyn to play radutai, a kind of 'horsing around' that Tevukas had indulged in as a youngster himself in Lithuania.

It wasn't that he did so much with us — besides lifting us high into the air and catching us before we could hit the ground — but his infectious spirit of fun filled us with childish delight. By contrast, the other grown up folk would treat us as if somehow we were adults who, through our own fault, hadn't grown up.

Tevukas would regale us with happy tales of the peasant life he had lived as a boy a long time ago in old Lithuania. He told us of how he had watched over the sheep as a little boy, and of the fearsome wolves who prowled nearby. He told us about the deep forest he would walk through late at night to get home.

Once, along the way, he thought he heard voices through the trees warning him, "Vincai, Vincai, take the other way home". Frightened, Tevukas did so. When he finally reached home, his mother embraced him, filled with relief. She told him that one of the workers on a neighboring estate had gone berserk and had been hiding in that very forest.

He would tell us of the proud lord on whose land his family lived and worked, of the lord's beautiful manor house, and of his beautiful daughter who spoke only Polish and would taunt Tevukas for being poor.

Tevukas would enchant us with stories of amber castles perched below the waves of the Baltic Sea, or frighten us with tales of haunted houses and evil spirits. He would tell us of the olden times, when the people worshipped the tall oak trees and the stones in the forests.

Every Saturday night, so that he would be clean for church the next day, Tevukas would wash his feet in a tin bucket. Sunday morning, he would put on his old, shiny but well-pressed suit and top it off with a black derby, looking like a dapper ponas (gentleman), twenty years younger than he was. He always sat in the same pew, at the aisle-end, and attended what was called the suma, the solemn high mass at 11:00 AM when the choir filled the old church with its beautiful singing in Lithuanian and Latin.

Tevukas loved to dance. At his granddaughter's wedding, when he was already 80 years old, Tevukas was determined to see if the young girls in America were as pretty and graceful as those in Lithuania. So, risking Grandmother's's stern disapproval, he danced with all of the bridesmaids at least half a dozen times.

Yes, they were as pretty and graceful, he eventually admitted, but there was none that could compare with his little Katuke (kitten), his affectionate name for Grandma.

The Empty Chair

That cold Christmas Eve, in Brooklyn, many years ago, we were all worried about our missing Tevukas. Grandmother couldn't be consoled, frightened that some tragic accident had befallen her husband. "Kur mano Vincas? Kur mano Vincas?" ("Where is my Vincas?"), she wailed over and over again throughout the Kucios meal.

We youngsters stole anxious glances at one another and prayed all the harder in our hearts that nothing bad had happened to Tevukas. We knew presents would be few, but at that point, we wanted nothing more than to see our Tevukas safely home again.

What made his mysterious disappearance even worse was that snow had started to fall the night before and had continued all during the day. Normally we would have been delighted with snow for Christmas. Now we were worried that Tevukas was lost in the blizzard.

Father gave thanks for God's gift of food for us. He inserted a quick prayer for Tevukas' safety. Our Kucious meal came to a melancholy conclusion.

A Christmas Gift

Suddenly, we heard a strange noise on the stairs leading to our flat. It had a peculiar, swishing sound which grew louder and louder as it approached our door. Then it stopped, and a loud banging ensued.

Father opened the door.

There stood a huge Christmas tree, full of snow. Behind it was Tevukas, all white too, like a living snow man, his mustache frozen stiff.

"Tevukai, Tevukai!", we all shouted at once. "Where were you? What happened?"

Tevukas smiled thinly through cracked lips and walked over to the stove in the kitchen to thaw out. Great globs of melting snow fell to the ground and Mother rushed to wipe them up.

Tevukas drank a warming shot of veritos (a strong, spiced honey liqueur), and began to tell his story.

When he had awakened that morning, he had seen the big flakes of snow. He knew that meant that the trolley car bosses would be hiring men to keep the tracks free of the falling snow. So, while it was still dark, he dressed quietly as not to wake Grandmother and trudged out to the car barns, where the trolleys began and ended their journeys.

Tevukas had worked all day in the cold and snow. With the money he earned, he bought us the biggest Christmas tree he could find. He told us that he had no money left to buy us anything else and hoped that we would like the tree. Well, even as young as we were, we kids understood what a sacrifice Tevukas had made for us. We jumped all over him, thanking him again and again, kissing him and wiping the melting snow that was still dripping from him.

Father stood the evergreen in a bucket in the parlor. And we marveled at what a wonderful Christmas present Tevukas had given us. It was the largest and best Christmas tree we had ever had.

Tevukas, finally thawed and warmed, sat, weary but contented, down on his waiting chair. Grandmother, though still scolding him, smiled as she brought him his Kucios meal.

Gifts would be few that evening, but our hearts were glad. Beloved Tevukas was safe and home with us on Christmas Eve.

The chair no longer sat empty.

—Albert C. Cizauskas

Now, at Kūčios, I keep an empty chair for Albert, my father.


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