How Rachel Cohn’s Christmas Memories Helped Inspire Lily’s Family’s Christmas Celebrations

How Rachel Cohn’s Christmas Memories Helped Inspire Lily’s Family’s Christmas Celebrations

My mother’s side of the family is Polish Catholic, and there are many of us. My mother was the oldest of ten, and her mother the third of nine. My mother is one of about 40 first cousins, and I one of about 30 (last time I counted). (David knows now that anywhere we tour, it’s likely I have a cousin there.) One of my favorite parts of writing Lily was incorporating my own Christmas memories of loud, boisterous family celebrations into the story.

In the books, Lily has a beloved great aunt she called Mrs. Basil E. who throws a legendary Christmas party every year. I have a legendary great Aunt Dotsy and her husband Uncle George who threw amazing parties every Christmas night. Here’s how it all went down:

The Night Before: In Polish tradition, one of the holiest nights of the year is Christmas Eve and the traditional wigilia meal where family members share oplatki, a thin wafer blessed by the church, by taking off a piece of each person’s oplatki, eating it, then kissing them on the cheek and wishing them Merry Christmas. After the wigilia meal, there is Christmas carol-singing around the tree. Remember Third Verse Lily from Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares? That’s in honor of my mom, sometimes known as Third Verse Betsy around the holidays, for her insane memory of every song verse past the usual one or two everyone else remembers. After wigilia, the non-babysitting adults go off to midnight mass while the kids try to sleep while waiting for Santa.

Christmas morning: This was present-opening, which, with so many people, could take a long while! Bring your coffee and a snack… After presents, there would be a big breakfast including warmed leftovers from the night before – mmm, pierogi. Then an afternoon of resting, and talking, and playing with the gifts.

The Big Event: At night, it was on to Aunt Dotsy and Uncle George’s house in Baltimore. Aunt Dotsy is the youngest of my grandmother’s nine siblings, so when you combined all their children, then grandchildren, stepchildren, friends, colleagues, neighbors etc. – this party got BIG. Uncle George used to joke he was worried about the living room floor falling through to the basement because there was such a crush of people. Their dining room had a long, oval table pushed back toward the wall, to allow more room for people to flow from the dining room through to the kitchen and basement, but the people who were seated by that back wall (because every seat was precious space!) were pretty much locked in for the night. And they loved it. The aunts, uncles and cousins sang traditional Polish carols, and they were all very talented singers, so the sounds coming from the dining room were gorgeous. The table would be piled high with kielbasa, pierogi, cookies and other treats, and of course, a lot of beer.

The kids usually stayed in the living room and watched TV (The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music was usually on), and pointlessly wait for the adults to take them home, and then we just fell asleep on each other’s shoulders while the adults continued partying in the next room. And I mean, partying and partying. These Christmas parties usually didn’t end until about four in the morning. For many years, the party went so late and crazy that many people just ended up spending the night at Aunt Dotsy and Uncle George’s. I can’t tell you how many December 26ths I woke up on a living room sofa, surrounded by people who’d slept on the floor and used the rugs for covers when there were no beds left.

If Lily’s family knows how to throw a holiday party, it’s because Lily’s author lived those parties in her childhood!

Wesołych Świąt! (That’s Merry Christmas in Polish.)

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