Slovak Christmas Memories

by Joseph Planey

I was born in a second-floor apartment at 2550 Cooper Street at Indianola Avenue in the Lansingville neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio.  Lansingville was a blue-collar ethnic neighborhood, with many of Slovak descent, including myself.

The neighborhood included many Roman Catholics.   My family was of the Byzantine Catholic denomination, referred to as ‘Greek Catholic” back then.

We attended St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, located on Wilson Ave. across the Mahoning River in Campbell, Ohio.  We attended the 11:00am mass.  We would make the half-hour walk down the hill and across the Center Street Bridge over the Mahoning River and the steel mills below.

My mother, Anna Garnek Planey, lived her life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  She was a kind and gentle woman who taught me as much by her actions as her words about what it meant to be a good Christian person.

The week before Christmas was extremely busy for my mother as she prepared typical ethnic foods such as kolachi, bobalki, pea soup, ham, chicken, kolbasy with sauerkraut, pagach with apples, cinnamon and sugar.  She would make the large kolachi, some with poppy seed, some with cottage cheese, some with apricot and some with walnuts. I remember my brother Pete and I shelling and grinding the walnuts in a hand grinder we would attach to the kitchen table.  My mother would add milk and honey to the nut mixture to give it a delicious taste.  Poppy seed was my favorite and still is to this day.  She also made noodles for soup on a two-foot square cutting board that fit over the kitchen table.  During this extremely busy time she kept the house as perfectly clean as it was during the rest of the year.  She also washed, in a wringer washer, and ironed all the clothing.

The Saturday before Christmas my mother, along with my brother Pete and myself, would take a bus trip to downtown Youngstown, Ohio to enjoy the many sights and sounds of the season.  Many of the stores were decorated with the windows displaying all sorts of Christmas scenes.  The Stambaugh-Thompson hardware store in particular had a magnificent railroad display.  One of the primary reasons for making the trip to downtown was to get our Christmas outfits at Hartzells-Rose and Sons clothing store.  My mother would shop for a new dress, coat and hat either at Strouss or McKelveys, the two major department stores.  The three of us always got new shoes at Brody’s Shoe Store on Federal Street near the square.  I can still see my mom looking regal in her new long elegant coat with its fur collar.

During that same week my brother Pete and I would buy a Christmas tree at Novatny’s Food Market.  We would drag it home and my brother Pete would make a wooden stand for it.  Once it was up and secure we would decorate the tree with the large-style bulbs similar to those used to decorate outside today.  The ornaments were hand-painted and very ornate and icicles completed the decorating process.  Once finished it was a beautiful sight to behold.

Finally, Christmas Eve was upon us.  We would dress up in our new Christmas outfits and began the walk to church.  My father had died, and we had no car.  We would often be picked up along the way by either Pat Calentone, who was married to one of the 5 Kohly sisters, or Frank Garanchovsky.  Pat and Frank and their families were members of the church and they drove large new Cadillacs.

As we approached the church, which was lit up with spotlights, the onion-top golden domes modeled after European churches made a magnificent sight to behold which still lingers in my memory today.  Entering the church, the familiar songs of the Christmas season rang out loud and clear, sung by the St. Nicholas choir.  They sang traditional songs of the season in both English and Slovak.  There were live Christmas trees, a life-sized manger scene with Mary and Joseph, the wise men, shepards, cows, donkeys, sheep and an empty crib among the many decorations.  The church was truly resplendent.

I would listen, awestruck, as the priest would retell the story of that glorious night when Jesus was born. Midway into the service the priest would lead the congregation outside and walk around the church building singing to simulate the wise men and the shepherds following the star to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.  Depending upon the weather, the number of trips around the church might be as few as one or as many as three.  Upon reentering the church a replica of the Christ child had been placed in the manger, simulating the birth of Christ.  This was followed by more joyous singing by the choir and congregation.

After the service people would linger, exchange greetings of the season, “Christ is born,” in both Slovak and English, and enjoy each other in the happy time of Christmas.  We would then proceed home to enjoy all of the ethnic food that my mother so carefully and lovingly had been preparing for most of the week.

During this holiday season, my mind wanders back to those days of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  A more simple time…and of all the joy and happiness we shared as family and friends…in Slovak Christmas memories.

December 22, 2009

11 Responses to “Slovak Christmas Memories”

  1. Sue UHLAR Patella says:

    My grand parents Mike & Katherine (Stanislaw) UHLAR lived on Indianola, near Taft. They also came from (then) Czechoslovakia & we belonged to St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, on Wilson. Everybody knew each other in the neighborhood. Indianola, Hunter, Taft & Cooper. Some were related. The kids went to Byzantine Catholic Central School, where 5 churches of families were combined. These were wonderful times with great memories. As a child, I use to help Baba cook, especially making parogies, using a glass to cut circles in the dough & maxing the mashed potatoes with butter & cheese. I also use to walk down the hill to Islays across from Adams School to buy penny candy. That was a big deal & simple fun. Thanks for the memories.

  2. An engaging, and truly touching “Slovak Christmas Memories,” are revisited by Joseph Planey. Thank you, Mr. Planey, in sharing those past times, which are so beautifully recalled by memory. Slower times, embraced by family and friends, whose closeness to one another, made life joyful. No matter, the existing economic times of the day, what with the eventual hard-hit Steel Valley factories’ demise. As my uncle Ralph B. Hodge, worked then at Republic Steel in Youngstown, Ohio; commuting to and from the factory work, while residing with his beloved family, whose home laid nearby, in the adjoining Trumbull County neighborhood.

    In reading your excellent article, “Slovak Christmas Memories,” it then placed me back home too; with my family in Warren, Ohio: gramma Pansy, grampa Clyde Holmes, uncle Ralph B. Hodge, and step-brother Richard Limber. Perhaps, these earlier times seemed less demanding then because of one’s youth. Still, every individual’s youth is experienced differently. The truth is, it’s family then, as now. It’s what life is all about. Thank you, Joseph Planey, in sharing your beloved family’ memories.

  3. Suzanne Shaffer says:

    My grandparents and aunt and uncle came to Youngstown in 1925 from Czechoslovakia. They lived on Hartzell off Steel St. My memories of Christmas Eve and the traditional food are the best of my life. Baba would cook for days in a little tiny kitchen and some how manage to seat over 30 people in her little tiny house what I wouldn’t give for one more Christmas Eve with the family.

  4. Jack Garasky says:

    Your Slovak Christmas Memories brought me many happy moments as I reminisced about my own childhood in Youngstown (east side). Our paternal family surname was Garanchovsky, before being changed. I wonder if the Frank Garanchovsky mentioned in the story is related to our family. Many thanks, and Merry Christmas!

  5. Gloria Lerch says:

    How wonderful to read these heartwarming stories about people just like me and my family….tears for sure…how I wish it were like that now….I miss that time terribly and my wonderful family….nothing can take the place of the love and warmth of my family …the world would be a much better place if we could return to those special times!!!!!!!!

  6. Becky Hughes says:

    This truly brought tears to my eyes. We are of Slovak decent and have celebrated Christmas Eve the same way that my immigrant grandparents. All the girls of my family have learned to make everything you have described including pierogi. I couldn’t imagine spending Christmas Eve any other way.

  7. Kim says:

    this was a great story to read.. I really enjoyed it.. Thanks for sharing it with everyone..really felt as if I was there

  8. Francine Papp says:

    My mom and her 5 siblings grew up on Cooper. I have many happy memories of Christmas at my grandparents house there! A much simpler time when families were considered their entire neighborhoods. We had aunts and uncles up and down the street! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Carol Ragan says:

    So funny to see Frank’s name in your blog. He was married to a cousin of my father, Andy Ragan. His mother-in-law was my grandmother’s sister. Small world.

  10. Mimi Tablack says:

    Wonderful story. I enjoyed reading it.

  11. My mother lived on Cooper Street and went to St. Nick’s. There were 7 children in her family (Karas). Also, the Kraynak family is my great aunt with her 11 children lived by St. Nick’s. You brought back some great memories. Thanks, Andrea Conrad March 29, 2012

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