Above, Piatak Family Christmases Past.
See earlier, by Peter Brimelow: The Singing Revolution vs. Open Borders Libertarianism
Like many Americans, one of my responses to the increasing rootlessness and anomie of modern life has been to take up genealogy as a hobby. Before the Ellis Island manifests were transcribed and made readily available to the general public, all I knew about the origins of my father’s family was that my Grandpa Piatak’s parents came from Slovakia and that my Grandma Piatak’s parents came from Poland. A discussion with my Grandpa Piatak shortly before he died left me with the vague sense that his parents had come from the area around Kosice. About my Polish side, I knew even less, only that they had come from the part of Poland under Russian domination before World War I, a domination that was remembered as brutal. (By contrast, thanks to my mom’s paternal grandfather, I knew that her direct male ancestor traveled on the Anne and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1623, and another was the first white settler in Allegany County, New York following the American Revolution, in which he served on the American side.) This may seem to be completely irrelevant to the War on Christmas, but what my family retained from Slovakia and Poland helped inspire and inform my own defense of Christmas and I believe some of what I have learned in my genealogical sleuthing could be helpful to all Americans wishing to preserve the public celebration of Christmas as part of America’s identity.
That was all the information that was passed down because that was all the information my paternal great-grandparents and grandparents thought was relevant. We were in America, had no plans to return to Europe, and did not want to live in America as though we had never left Europe. As my grandparents and great aunts and uncles used to say, “We are in America, so we speak American.” (Yes, “American” is what they called the language in which I am writing). My grandparents and their siblings knew from their parents how desperately poor the family had been in Europe, and they were all happy to live in America and proud to be Americans, born in Cleveland after their parents had arrived, not taken through Ellis Island as children. The only things my dad’s parents treasured and maintained from the patrimony they had received was their Roman Catholic faith and some distinctive customs surrounding Christmas.
The most solemn moment of our family Christmas celebration was always dinner on Christmas Eve. By tradition, it was meatless. For many years, the dinner was run by my Grandma Piatak (baptized Stefania Kowalczyk) and her older sister Mary (baptized Marianna Bronislawa Kowalczyk).
Dinner began when either my Grandpa Piatak or Uncle Walt broke off a piece of oplatki for himself and handed the remainder to the people sitting next to him, who continued the pattern until each of us had a piece. (Oplatki are rectangular pieces of unleavened bread with the texture and taste of old-style Communion wafers and feature pictures relating to the Nativity of Jesus Christ.) The head of the household would then lead all of us in saying grace, after which we began eating fish, pierogi, the Polish-style sauerkraut we called “kapusta,” and peas. Dessert consisted of nut and poppyseed rolls, together with more conventional Christmas cookies for the kids. The menu, and the ritual, never varied, but the source of the fish did.
One particularly cold and snowy Christmas Eve stands out. That year, we got the fish for our dinner from Arthur Treacher’s, a then-popular fish and chips chain. It being Parma, Ohio, then Cleveland’s largest suburb, whose leading ethnic groups were reputed to be Polish-Americans, Slovak-Americans, Ukrainian-Americans, and Italian-Americans—the Italians liked the city’s name—my Uncle Denny and I were far from the only ones waiting in line to buy fried fish at a chain restaurant on Christmas Eve. Friendly conversation with the others waiting in line quickly confirmed what I had suspected: each of us was there because our families had bought Polish or Slovak Christmas customs with them to America.
When the dinner was at my Grandma Piatak’s house rather than my Aunt Mary’s, my Grandma would sometimes play her record of Polish Christmas carols, or “koledy.” This record featured “Li’l Wally the Polka King” and the St. Stanislaus Choral Group of Michigan City, IN.
As a child, my Grandma had sung Polish carols for her mother while standing under the bare kitchen light, which served as a substitute for the colorful “stars” carried door to door by carolers in villages in Poland. (Americans still enjoyed caroling when I was a kid—I’m 58—and I have distinct memories of carolers in our suburban neighborhood.) When my Grandma would start singing along, she often was joined by my mother, who has not a drop of Polish blood but who learned to sing, and love, Polish Christmas carols while attending St. Stanislaus Kostka grade school in Youngstown.
I quickly came to share the matriarchal love for the music, which often featured fast, lively tunes quite different from the Christmas carols I knew from church, music classes and choir in public school, the radio, my parents’ large collection of Christmas records, and the ubiquitous Christmas specials on TV that (in those days) featured one singer after another singing Christmas music each December.
None of this alienated me from the wider Christmas celebration that was going on all around me. Quite the contrary: the fact that my family cherished our distinctive Christmas customs enough to preserve them when they willingly jettisoned so many other customs left me with the firm conviction that Christmas was wonderful, special, and unique—in fact, as I put it in my first essay on the topic 21 years ago, “the principal holiday of the world’s most creative civilization for over a millennium.”
There were no demands that the Parma public schools replace their traditional Christmas activities with Polish ones. But there was plenty of time for other Christmas activities, and I will wager no one graduated from the Parma public schools in those days without knowing “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” the carol sung by the Peanuts, after a Nativity play in another public school, in what is perhaps Charles Schulz’ preeminent achievement, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
But I was not the only American with Polish ancestry willing to fire back in the War on Christmas. That first piece of mine on the War against Christmas, “Happy Holidays! Bah? Humbug?,” was rerun by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a slightly abbreviated form on the Sunday before Christmas 2001. The paper published a handful of the letters to the editor it received on the topic, with my favorite coming from someone named Bernice Renkawek:
I read with much interest the essay by Tom Piatak. Thank you for publishing his thoughts.
I am ashamed to say that for the past few years, I have found myself becoming so entangled in Political Correctness that my own holiday has suffered as a result. I realized this year that it had gotten completely out of control when I didn’t wish my regular bus driver a ”Merry Christmas” because I didn’t know how it would be taken.
I wish Mr. Piatak’s article had been printed sooner. I wish I had kept my Polish backbone and not given a hoot as to what people would think if I wished them a Merry Christmas. And above all, I wish I hadn’t pushed the celebration of the birth of Jesus into the back seat, under a blanket, where it couldn’t be seen and, therefore, wouldn’t offend anyone.
Mr. Piatak said it quite simply. The holiday is Christmas. Period. And such a beautiful and wonderful holiday it is. Thanks to him, from now on, I will do exactly what I feel in my heart.
I will wish people Merry Christmas, and if they look at me and say, ”I don’t believe in Christmas. I don’t celebrate Christmas. I don’t believe in God”—my answer will be the same, ”Well, I do, so Merry Christmas, again!”
[Issue One letters: ’Happy Holidays?’ Bah! Humbug!—Renewed Christmas vigor, December 30, 2001]
Bernice Renkawek’s response was exactly the response I was hoping to elicit from ordinary Americans 21 years ago when I joined VDARE.com’s defense of Christmas. And for 21 years VDARE.com has continued to encourage the many other Americans like Bernice Renkawek to make the transition “from being so entangled in Political Correctness” that they would not wish others “a “Merry Christmas’ because [they] did not know how it would be taken” to wishing they had “kept [their]…backbones” and would stop pushing “the celebration of the birth of Jesus into the back seat, under a blanket, where it couldn’t be seen.”
I now know much more about my Slovak and Polish ancestry than I did when I signed up to follow an English immigrant in his sometimes lonely and always courageous defense of Christmas. As I considered what I would say about Christmas for VDARE.com this year, I thought about some lessons I had learned from my family history that might prove helpful as we Americans struggled to maintain our country and the civilization of which it has always been an integral part.
Shortly after the Ellis Island records became available, my Dad and I found the Ellis Island manifest for his grandfather, Joseph Piatak, who arrived at Ellis Island in August 1899 to join one of his brothers living at 17 Berg Street in Cleveland, Ohio. Luckily for us, the manifest clearly recorded the name of the village where Joseph was born: “Kolacsko,” which was the Hungarian name for Kolackov, a Slovak village roughly 15 miles west of the High Tatra Mountains and 12 miles south of the Polish border.
Ultimately, all six of the nine sons of John Piatak and Anna Tatarsky to survive childhood made their way to Cleveland and many of their descendants live here still, including me.
The discovery of where the family had come from was followed, not long after, by an unforgettable visit as part of a longer vacation in Central Europe, in May 2002. We found a small village in a beautiful natural setting, were welcomed with amazing hospitality by people who did not even know of our existence before we showed up, and established personal connections that endure to this day.
The center of the village remains the Catholic parish church of St. Michael, and the rest of the village contains numerous, well-maintained religious shrines, large and small, inside of the people’s homes and outside of them, including the Stations of the Cross erected by the villagers along a steep hillside path, at the end of which stands a hilltop chapel dedicated to the patroness of Slovakia, Mary, Mother of Sorrows. It was clear that, despite decades of Communism, Catholicism was as central to the lives of the people of Kolackov as it had been to my great-grandparents and their contemporaries.
The deeply rooted Catholicism of Kolackov was a welcome confirmation of something I knew had once been true. But the next discovery came as a total surprise. The village dialect was not a standard Slovak dialect, but a Goral— “highlander” dialect, an amalgam of Slovak and Polish, closer in some ways to the latter. The people of Kolackov love music and support a number of musical groups, including several Goral folk bands. The best known of the Kolackov-based musical groups is “Kollarovci,” who specialize in jazz-inflected Goral folk music and who play to large crowds throughout Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and southern Poland. Their most popular YouTube video has over 23,000,000 hits.
And watching Kollarovci videos, many of which are filmed in Kolackov and the surrounding area, led me back to the War on Christmas.
As James Fulford has emphasized in his writings this year at VDARE.com, the War on Christmas has become a war on Normality. Although there is little sign of the War on Christmas in Slovakia, the country is part of the E.U., which is waging war on the Normal in multiple arenas. And this war on Normality is a culture war, the type of war the left denied even existed until it announced it had won.
I know nothing about the political opinions, if any, of the musicians in Kollarovci. But their videos show how conservatives should have been fighting the Culture War all along, and still can. In order to fight a Culture War, you need to produce good culture of your own. You need talented musicians who can make good music, talented directors and actors who can make good movies, talented writers who can write good books people want to read. Only then are you in a position to influence the broader culture.
And that, it seems to me, is what Kollarovci is quietly doing. Consider this video, celebrating normal family life. Or this one, showing a father teaching his beloved son about life. Or this one, showing the Kollar brothers visiting Grandma in Kolackov. In each of these videos, the camera highlights religious objects, shows people praying, or both. In none of these videos is there is even a hint of queer ideology, transgenderism, or the like.
There are numerous other Kollarovci videos like these. We need more, much more, like this, in America, and all over the West.
Lest there be any doubt about where the band stands on issues of ultimate importance, I think this deeply inspiring and thoroughly masculine performance of a Slovak Marian hymn, which is included on the Kollarovci Christmas CD released in December 2022, makes everything the band has been doing quite clear.
What happens, though, when government bureaucrats or advertisers or major corporations or the like insist that a celebration of the normal is no longer permissible? That leads to the lessons learned from studying the Polish side of my family tree.
I only recently determined that my Polish great-grandparents came to America from the villages of Lipniki and Brzozowa in the Roman Catholic parish of Lipniki. When my family came here, the parish was part of the Lomza Gubernia of the Russian Empire. Today, the villages are part of Ostroleka County, in a free and independent Poland.
It wasn’t supposed to end up that way. At the end of the Third Partition, Poland was supposed to be wiped off the map forever.
The same thing was supposed to be the result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the German and Russian invasions of Poland that followed in September 1939, and the genocidal Nazi occupation that intensified after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Poland was supposed to have no more than nominal independence once the Soviets replaced the Nazis as occupiers, an event that occurred in August 1944, after the Red Army paused its drive to Berlin to give the Nazis the chance to destroy the anti-Communist Polish Home Army and demolish Warsaw.
And one of the reasons it did not end up that way was, remarkably enough, the deep Polish love of Christmas. As explained in this fascinating article, “The Cornucopia of Hidden Meanings in Polish Christmas Carols” [by Weronika Edmunds, December 7, 2022], there are approximately 600 extant Polish carols. All of them are about the Nativity of Jesus Christ, not snow, Santa, shopping, sleigh rides, elves, or even festive greenery.
But they also helped Poles retain a sense of themselves as a separate people who deserved a nation of their own. Edmunds quotes perhaps Poland’s greatest writer, Adam Mickiewicz, describing Polish carols as “the ark of the covenant between our old, glorious past and today’s sad reality.” She notes that Chopin composed his Scherzo in B Minor, op. 20, which quotes the famous Polish carol “Lulajze Jezuniu,” right after the brutal Russian suppression of the November 1830 uprising. She notes that the large number of Polish carols ‘’were written to represent all native musical forms and thus preserve them.”
A bit earlier, the BBC put out its list of the seven of best Polish carols [Polish Christmas carols: 7 of the best, by Hannah Nepilova, November 22, 2022]. The last carol on the BBC’s list, “W Dzien Bozego Narodzenia,” was rewritten to inspire the Polish legionaries who were fighting to regain Poland’s independence during World War I.
What lesson is there for Americans in Poland’s history? Simply this: never give up.
The War on Christmas, which a handful of people with backbones have at least stalemated, is part of a larger war on America, the West, and the Normal. The resistance in that wider war, led by far more respectable outlets than VDARE.com and far more respectable conservatives than Peter Brimelow, is not doing well, in large part because those who claim to be resisting the left are actually more interested in policing Thought Criminals on the Right.
In fact, leadership on the Right is so bad that many have concluded that all is lost. But, as this powerful scene below shows, it isn’t.
It is Christmas Eve in 1939, and the officer commanding a group of Polish officers in Soviet captivity has asked one of his men to report upon seeing the first star in the night sky. If these men were with their families, the sighting of the star would mean the beginning of the Christmas Eve dinner. Here, after a brief speech by their commander, the men all sing one of the greatest of Polish Christmas carols, Bog sie rodzi (God is born).
By the summer of 1940, the Soviets had killed all these men. During the war, the Western Allies pressured the Polish government in exile to accept the official story that these men were all killed by the Nazis. The homeland these men were defending was freed from Nazi occupation only to be put under Soviet domination, and it was a crime in Communist Poland to tell the truth about Katyn. It appeared, for decades, that everything these men cherished was lost forever.
But it wasn’t.
[A Scene To Ponder, by Tom Piatak, American Remnant, January 8, 2021]
If we keep singing our Christmas carols, and hold on to the rest of the West’s incomparable patrimony with equal tenacity, we will end up saving America, the West, and the Normal.