The bell rang, so I dropped the potato I was peeling and ran to open the door for our dinner guests. We were having a little pre-Christmas gathering with a small group of friends who were going to learn how to make our favorite Polish “soul food,” pierogis. They’re a dumpling you can fill with all different kinds of stuffing—sweet, like fresh berries, or savory like sauerkraut with mushrooms, or even ground meat. Every culture has some version of this dish, from dim sum to ravioli to empanadas and samosas.
Our Christmas tree was decorated with the ornaments we’d collected over the years, giving off a strong smell of fir, bringing deep memories from our childhood homes in Poland. Flames were dancing in the fireplace while soft jazz flooded the house. It felt like the Christmas spirit was with us, ushering in the beginning of the holidays.
When I opened the door there was a beautiful basket of white orchids greeting me with the smiling faces of our friends behind them. There was one unexpected guest—a man with a kind face and smiling eyes wearing saffron and burgundy robes.
“Welcome to our humble home,” I said.
Everyone arranged themselves on sofas around the fireplace and we made introductions. We started with tea and holiday drinks, and then everyone got up to help me prepare the pierogis in the kitchen nearby. What I like about our dinners is that our friends usually don’t like to be “served,” preferring instead to dig in and participate in the cooking. That night we were stuffing the pierogis with Polish farmer’s cheese, potato, and sautéed onion. Our mystery guest was a monk from Bhutan, who had pulled out his iPhone to watch the Dalai Lama making a live speech. I invited him to join the cooking crew, which he did with enthusiasm. I noticed that he had beautiful, nimble, unblemished hands, and wondered how often he really cooked.
After we’d finished the preparation of the pierogis and they were boiling away in a big pot, we returned to the living room and our special guest asked me about the tradition behind our Christmas tree. We explained our Polish roots, and how we’d always harvested a tree to decorate for Christmas. He wanted to know what it symbolized, and we realized that for us it represented bounty and abundance in an otherwise poor landscape. We always looked forward to gathering the extended family together around the tree, eating well and being warm together in a nurturing environment. It brought about reconciliation and forgiveness along with joy and celebration. We asked the monk if he had a similar celebration at his home in Bhutan.
He mentioned that they celebrated Buddha’s birthday by planting a tree. It surprised him that we would cut down so many trees every year just for a few days of decoration. To him, it just didn’t make sense. Jerzy brought up the power of old traditions and how they’re ingrained in our hearts and psyches, and are very difficult to change. I explained that trees are also farmed here for the purpose of sustainable harvests, and that I’ve learned artificial trees can be harmful with their environment-damaging, toxic materials that can’t be recycled. I also mentioned that we’d had trees in the past with roots that we could bring inside in buckets and then replant outside. Now, apparently, you can even rent a live tree and return it after the holidays. As we explored the topic, we realized that we were experiencing a clash of culture and beliefs, and that to put down anyone’s cultural tradition can cause strong reactions. We defend our traditions with our hearts, not our brains. They don’t always make “sense” when viewed from outside. If we come from a position of curiosity and understanding, discussions can blossom and cultural exchange can take place without judgment or condemnation. We can learn from each other and something can shift.
Do you have traditions that you follow, and have you examined them or have they shifted over time? Have you ever clashed with someone over a religious or cultural tradition? How did it resolve? Are there traditions and practices from other cultures you’ve adopted for your own life? What guided you to incorporate them into your own personal culture?
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