Sausages, Fireplaces, and The Mystery of Christmas Traditions

Well, I am within the 12 Days of Christmas, so I don’t consider this article late (by the way, don’t forget the Epiphany House Blessing!). My bride and I both spring from good ethnic stock–she, a Chicago Polack; I, a Cleveland Slovenian. But through the strange twists and turns of Providence (and decisions that I can only blame on her idiot husband), we have found ourselves living in the ever-frigid Twin Cities. But I digress.

As is our custom every Christmas (and Easter), we place calls to the old family-run Slovenian meat markets in Cleveland to provide us with our Christmas fare–klobase (kielbasa) and zelodec.
IMG_0044 It is a great thrill to receive the package as soon as it arrives. Even though vacuum-packed, one can still smell the heavenly aroma of the traditions of home. The sight and smell of these delicacies recall wonderful memories of Christmases past and we look forward to that moment after Midnight Mass when we get to dig into these wonders of human, nay, divine creation!

Why would I go through all the trouble to have sausage sent from the hometown? Why can’t I simply go to a number of the very fine meat markets here in town? As I have observed elsewhere, there is something special about feasting and one’s own home: we recall the smell of grandma’s cooking; we recall a good dinner with good wine and good conversation especially among family. This takes on an even more poignant and mystical meaning when we couple it to the liturgical calendar. Christmas is one of those feasts that recalls one to his roots. It is not the same, or fitting,  unless one celebrates in the manner that his father and grandfather celebrated. This might mean a particular rhythm of the day, particular customs, and particular food. In my case it means particular Slovenian sausage made from Raddell’s on East 152nd Street and from Azman’s on St. Clair Avenue, both in Cleveland.

My colleague and friend, John B. Manos, has never tired of repeating the importance of the cultural expressions of the faith in this manner. Far from detracting from doctrine and practice, these traditions and customs support it and may be the very thing that brings back our straying friends and family to the bosom of Mother Church:

I find it funny that among the various ethnic parishes I’ve been at, the old folks all complain of the same thing: assimilation by the culture-less American Church destroying their children. For them, the AmChurch has been a gateway drug to nondenominational worship by their kids. That is, among other things, what the ethnically cleansed parishes of the AmChurch were: nondenominational, noncharactered, nonsacramental, nontraditional, and non-Catholic.

Little Vinny doesn’t believe in the sacraments anymore not because he went to St. Anthony’s Grotto Parish with quarterly ravioli dinners and a giant festival to St. Anthony every year. Little Vinny doesn’t believe because he experienced AmChurch which has no ravioli, no ties to history, no statues, no sacraments, and no faith. It’s really that easy.

The problem in the Catholic Church today is that it has made a generation and a half of little Vinnys, little Seans, little Margaritas, little Sashas, and given them a false belief that what AmChurch taught them is really the Church. One of the only things that might possibly provoke these people to wake up and realize that AmChurch was wrong is the niggle of ethnic traditions. Why? because it carries with it the democracy of all those people who built it with features of Catholic faith. Such traditions are an integral part of anything we might call “comprehensive Catholicism.”

IMG_9719Manos nails it. This is one of the reasons that every year I dread the onslaught of new fresh-faced “Catholic apologists” who go to war with St. Nick/Santa Claus/Old Befana/etc. because they don’t want to “lie to their kids” about the supernatural appearance of gifts under the tree. I think that they sometimes forget that Catholics who maintain such traditions are not necessarily losing sight of the Birth of Christ or the Mystery of the Incarnation or are falling prey to a soul-deadening commercialism. The gifts do supernaturally appear–the contemplation of the Birth of Christ inspires within the soul an outpouring of gratitude to God and generosity to all! Perhaps it is the one night of the year to allow the disappointments of this valley of tears to be overcome by an authentic consideration of the happiness of others. We are taken out of ourselves and, perhaps without reserve, give ourselves to those whom we should give ourselves everyday.   If that is not supernaturally-inspired, if that is not mystical, I’m not sure what is.

To be fair, most of these apologist-types are good folks wanting to spread the faith and do the right thing, but it is painfully obvious that they were deprived of a rich, traditional, expression of Catholicism which brought forth the mystical through the ordinary and which is maintained through memory–both cultural and personal. They were probably not reared on the rhythm of yearly ravioli dinners in honor of St. Anthony; and, more likely than not, they grew up eating bland and uniform Hillshire Farms “sausage” rather than enjoying the rich, traditional taste of old world klobase made by the time-honored and traditional methods practiced by Raddell or Azman.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of memory and these liturgical feasts and holidays and their celebration:

These events, of such great significance for mankind, which are preserved and opened up by faith’s calendar, are intended to become personal memories of our own life history through the celebration of holy seasons by means of liturgy and custom. Our personal memories are nourished by mankind’s great memories; in turn, it is only by translating them into personal terms that these great memories are kept alive. (Pope Benedict XVI, Seek That Which is Above, Ignatius 2007, p 27.)

There is so much more to living the faith than the sterility put forth by the fun-killers, be they of the liberal or conservative variety. These traditions and customs are aids to practicing charity and hence, a mystery. Our personal memories of Christmas–the smells, the (jingle) bells, the tastes, the familiar carols, the klobase, the fact that an ordinary thing like a fireplace turns into an extraordinary entrance through which gifts come–and the continued maintenance and practice of these traditions, all contribute to a very personal relationship with the Child who was born in the middle of the night and the mystery of loving one another. Just as Love was born on this day, He is born anew every year in each of us. Indeed, “God became man that man might become God.”

May our children never stray from Christ, the love of Christmas. But if they do, please God, may the traditions we maintain and practice be a spur to their return to the Church. May the remembrance and taste for klobase and zelodec in the middle of the night, and the excitement of looking at the charred stones of the fireplace–seeing in them a mystical passageway to a joyful gift-giver, recall for them also Him who came silently into world over 2,000 years ago, who has never left, and is the greatest gift of all. Merry Christmas!




This article, Sausages, Fireplaces, and The Mystery of Christmas Traditions is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • I grew up making these sausages from scratch with meat we raised using our own casings. Sometimes the pork was mixed with venison my dad shot. It was a treat to take my seven children to Slovenia where we ate sausage that tasted almost exactly like we used to make at home. And it would not be Christmas or Easter without making potica using my grandmother’s recipe.

  • Awesome, Robb! Thanks for sharing! Perhaps Dejak will post something on potica soon!

  • […] of Central European traditions, but that is because of the heritage of the contributors here.  I have written elsewhere of these traditions and how they are a foretaste of the eternal banquet–what Chesterton called the “Inn at the End of the World.”  Manos has also never […]

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