Papa Joe’s Christmas Star

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His Star in the east, and are come to worship Him.

…Lo, the Star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the Star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down, and worshipped Him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-2, 2:9-11

During all of my years growing up in a Detroit suburb, and for 50 weeks of each year, a silver four-foot tall Christmas star hung quietly in our garage. During the spring, summer, fall, and most of the winter, it was part of the storage landscape – no more obvious or important than the long since retired basketball backboard, auto fluids, and storm windows.

Handmade by my dad in the 1950s, and fashioned out of wood he no doubt found around the house, all the angles were derived without a protractor and cut without a miter saw, and all ten dovetail joints hand-hewn. Holes for the inset lights (blue Westinghouse C-7 series…much cheaper right after Christmas) were also drilled by hand; parallel wiring – so all the bulbs don’t go out if only one does (long before this was even available commercially) – the final touches of his handiwork.

By today’s Clark Griswold-inspired de rigueur, no one stops in front of the house to admire it. And you won’t find it on YouTube. The 7-watt bulbs don’t pulse to music, it’s dwarfed by the sizes of today’s houses, isn’t inflatable. Once attached to the house, it doesn’t move. But, when I was a kid, nothing fueled excitement like that star’s 200-foot journey from the garage to the roof peak of our small ranch on a corner lot facing a semi-busy street. Always in the final days before December 25.

On Christmas Eve, we’d celebrate the Polish event Wygilia (vuh-GEE-lee-uh) at my Aunt Nettie’s and Uncle Ted’s house in a neighboring town. Tradition called for beginning dinner when the first star in the sky is visible. But the first star we saw that evening, that we paid closest attention to, was atop our home. Stuffed into the family sedan, rounding the corner on the way to Nettie’s, dad would ask us to count the number of burned-out bulbs so he could replace them immediately.

Oplatek

For us kids, Wygilia was the best night of the year. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all broke opłatek (o-PWA-tek), a thin, tasteless wafer with each other…similar to the unleavened wheat and flour of Holy Communion. One by one, we’d offer a small piece of our bread and take a piece of our family member’s, offering any forgiveness, while sharing good wishes for the year: Usually health, success at school or work, happiness.

My grandmother, Busia, made mushroom borscht featuring dried, smelly fungi shipped from relatives in Europe behind the Iron Curtain, grateful for our hand-me-down clothes and other precious commodities she’d send them. As kids we found the soup too bitter. But adulterated versions of her recipe concocted by my brother Tom and, since his passing, his sons, are exquisite. Pierogi, filled with meat, potato and cheese, and kapusta (kuh-POO-stuh – sour kraut) were part of the rest of the fare, along with Aunt Nettie’s roast beef – a violation of the “no meat” Christmas Eve dinner clause among European-born Catholics, but her special contribution to the meal.

My grandparents -- Busia and Dziadzia

An extra place is set at the dinner table for a “lost visitor” – homage to the Holy Family seeking shelter on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, an uncle or cousin was cajoled into donning the stifling hot Santa suit and mucking it up during the gift exchange.

Midnight mass at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church followed later that night. I was an altar boy, member of the choir and lecturer while in grade school there. Dad was a founding member of the parish and usher. He attended 6:30 a.m. daily mass before going to work at Uniroyal, Tuesday night Novenas to the Blessed Virgin, 40-hour devotions, and every rosary. Faith was the center of his life.

Inevitably, years after I married and moved out, dad’s age and chronic imbalance prevented him from climbing a ladder to decorate his home for the holidays. Which meant no more star. And so he offered it to me. I still don’t know why.

For the most part, I lack the holiday enthusiasm of my siblings. And, unlike his Longines watch, a wedding gift from my mother, I didn’t drop hints for it or argue (privately) with brothers over who deserved it. I can’t even say I wanted the star. Perhaps I happened to be the one visiting him when he decided it was time to give it up. Or maybe I needed it most.

In retrospect, though he never said it, handing over that star must have been like giving up his car keys: The end of his independence. Worse was the inability to share his holiday spirit with the thousands of motorists who passed our house during the last week of December and through the Feast of the Epiphany (visitation of the Magi), January 6. Motorists who, until this day, know the house in which I grew up by that star.

I admit to some apprehension when we hosted Wygilia that year, a few years before dad’s death, and he saw the star hanging on my house for the first time. But, he said it looked “nice” there. And I think he really meant it.

As I began to get the star ready this year, decades of exposure that weakened the star’s structure became apparent. After suffering over whether it was too far gone (and hearing my dad tell me to give it up), my wife and daughters told me plainly: Figure out. And fix it. There’s no way you’re getting rid of that star. I spent hours considering the repairs, finally adding some brackets, surgically-implanting a piece for a completely broken section, repainting the faded, chipped silver paint, and replacing the exposed wiring (a memorable discovery while holding the star and plugging it in) with new C7 lights.

Like the birth of the universe and our solar system’s luminous sphere of plasma, the genesis of dad’s star is a mystery. He hated the commercialism of the holiday. He rarely accepted the gifts we purchased so thoughtfully for him. And, in later years, he attended Wygilia only begrudgingly.

But making and hanging that star may have reminded him of his own father, Jan Mikolajczyk, who died when my dad was only six. Yet, as the oldest boy, Papa Joe assumed paternal duties in the household including five younger siblings.

One of my dad’s few memories of his father, a hearty immigrant whose work in a Pennsylvania coal mine claimed his life, was of the man lighting candles on their Christmas tree in the early 1920s, singing Polish Christmas hymns quietly to himself, then blowing out the candles.

Papa Joe and me at his last Wygilia, 2005

In September 2008, we made the 1,299-mile trip from Michigan to Colorado Springs. Papa Joe’s star was the final item loaded on the moving truck – carefully handled by sturdy men who earlier carried leather couches on their backs. There was no question the star would make the trip. Nor was there debate on whether it would hang proudly on our new house.

I think my dad’s pleased with the love we have for that star – and that my son, Daniel, made me promise the star to him when I’m no longer able to scale a ladder.

I’d also like to think that one of the stars in the beautiful Colorado Springs night sky is my dad – quietly twinkling with joy – at the new home his labor of love helped make for us, and the silent symbol that beckons to remind us of a cold night in Bethlehem, so many years ago.

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