Showing posts with label The Peasants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Peasants. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reflections on The Peasants

I just finished reading The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont. I first mentioned the book in a blog post last October. Since then I've written about it here, here, here, here, and here. I've been reading it for months now (it's a long book) and it feels like I've just said goodbye to a whole community of people I've come to know rather well. I've lived with the characters through autumn, winter, spring, and summer... the book covers a complete year of life in a Polish village in the late 1800s. I thought I would share with you some of my reflections about the book and the insights I've gained from reading it.

First off, I was intrigued by village life. For the most part, people were born, grew up, and died in their own little village with little opportunity or desire to venture beyond it. There was a sort of cast system that was dictated by the amount of (or lack of) land one's family owned. Those who didn't own land and had to work for others were one step above the beggars. Those who owned just enough land to sustain their families were second to those who were able to support their family and perhaps hire some additional hands to help out around the farm. Those who were trade merchants (i.e. miller, blacksmith, etc.) were more highly regarded along with the parish priest, the soltys (village administrator) and the wojt (village leader). Because the Catholic Church forbade its members to serve liquor, the Jews were the bartenders and money lenders. There was a strained relationship between the villagers and the Jews. They each seemed to think less of each other but at the same time recognize that their own well being depended on getting along with the other. I wouldn't say there was respect between them, more like a mutual tolerance and acceptance of the ways things had to be.

Today's soap operas have nothing on the scandals that went on in the remote villages in Poland. Adultery, thievery, slander, conspiracy... for a people who were so devoutly Catholic and had shrines on practically every corner they sure had their share of human foibles. I was appalled at how common place it was to verbally thrash one's neighbor or family member and then pray fervently for God's forgiveness only to do the same thing again the next day. Screaming was a way of life. I know the book is fiction but I have no problem believing this way of interacting was "normal". I distinctly remember some of my relatives discussing this years ago, they would have been first generation Americans. They would scream vile names at each other and if someone suggested that they didn't need to be so nasty they would look at them like they were nuts and say something to the effect of "I'm Polish, it's in my blood!". They were only repeating behavior they'd seen modeled for them.

It was interesting to see how ignorant and fearful they were of things like the weather. Poland typically doesn't get the extreme weather we get here in the U.S. Hurricanes don't happen there and tornadoes are extremely rare (I think the last one occurred in 2002). Even thunderstorms, while not exactly rare, are not frequent either. The villagers in the book were pretty fearful of storms and did a lot of praying during them. Some believed the weather was one of God's ways of rewarding them for good behavior or punishing them for their misdeeds. There was much they didn't understand about the world around them and as often as not what they didn't understand they attributed to God or the devil.

Within a family, those who were most able were most valued. It was almost shocking to see the rudeness and disregard shown to the elderly. When someone became too old to be of much use around the farm they were pretty much seen as a liability... another mouth to feed but no more hands to help. Some were encouraged by their grown children to go begging, essentially becoming vagabonds. Others left on their own accord not wanting to wait for the humiliation of being thrown out by their families. It made a twisted sort of sense in their world, so many went hungry due to not having enough land to support their large families. Still, it seems so harsh, so cruel.

Even when the peasants were free land holders and no longer "owned" by the estate Lords, they didn't trust them. There was an "us vs them" mentality that no doubt stemmed from the "haves vs the have nots" reality. It appeared that the peasants had long memories of the times they were treated unfairly by their keepers. Likewise, the nobility and landowning gentry avoided associating with the peasants unless necessary. I'm not sure if they feared them or just thought themselves better than them.

Voting was a joke. This story takes place in the Russian partition of Poland and the voting process was conducted by the Russians government officials. In the book the villagers of Lipka were asked to vote on whether or not to build a school in the village. The Russians told them they wanted one. The villagers said they did not. They wanted to learn to read and write in Polish not the Russian language that was mandated. They were threatened that if they didn't vote in favor of the school they might have a heavy price to pay. Then they voted against it but were told the final vote tally was in favor of a school. Slam dunk. Nothing they could do. They'd be taxed and have to attend a school they didn't want. The book may be fiction but I have no trouble believing this sort of thing really went on.

Reymont was a master at creating a setting so detailed you don't have to use much imagination to be there. He was born in the small village of Kobiele Wielke, and grew up in the village of Tuszyn both located south of Lodz. Lipka (Lipce), the village where the story takes place, is located east of Lodz, but all are in the same general vicinity. His own life experiences would have given him good reference material for writing about village life. He was obviously a good observer of human behavior and a keen observer of farm life though being the son of a church organist his family likely didn't do any farming of their own. Still, his writing makes you feel the boring drudgery of a village farmer who toils in the fields hour after hour, day after day. You could feel the hot sun burning down on the villagers as they made their way into the fields during the peak of summer and feel the bitter, biting cold winds that whipped around those forced to go into the woods for firewood in the dead of winter. The monotony of rain, day after day that forced everyone to stay indoors until they felt like climbing the walls of their one room huts was described so well it was hard to keep reading... you couldn't help but want the rain to end just so you wouldn't have to keep reading about it!

No doubt about it, I learned a lot about the lifestyle my Polish ancestors lived by reading this book. I also learned how the villagers feared the Russians and why they would consider fleeing to America to avoid being sent to work camps in Siberia (even those like my grandfather who being the eldest son stood first in line to inherit the large family farm). Their daily life was hard. They were oppressed by the Russians, and they feared storms, the Germans, and the wrath of God. They often went hungry and except perhaps during harvest never ate a balanced meal. They had no medicines beyond the herbs they could gather in the fields and woods. Most couldn't read or write. The one thing they clung to to get them through their dreary existence was their religion. It gave them forgiveness for their sins, belief in a better life after death, holy days to rest from their toil, and sacraments to celebrate life. They decorated their clothing and homes with bright colors and danced and drank vodka when life gave them an opportunity to celebrate. I watched them baptize their young, honor their dead, celebrate Christmas, marry, observe Lent, bury their loved ones, fight for what was theirs, celebrate Easter, and reap their harvest. It was educational, emotional, entertaining, and at times exhausting.

No wonder Reymont won a Nobel Prize for this book. It's quite a book.

My friend "V" was kind enough to lend me her VHS copies of the movie made of this book. I've been holding off watching them till I finished the book. Now I'll have to watch the movie to see how close the movie comes to the actual story. I can only hope it is as well done.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Did My Ancestors Give Gifts at Christmas?

I'm almost done with my Christmas shopping. Every year there seems to be more and more of it to do. Don't get me wrong, I like the shopping. It's the bills and the wrapping I could do without ;-)

As I think back to the ways my ancestors in Poland celebrated Christmas, I can't help but wonder what they did in the way of gift-giving. My first thought was that they made gifts for each other. But in reading The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont I'm left wondering if they even exchanged gifts back then. Was gift-giving even a part of the Christmas holiday?

I know from reading The Peasants and from correspondence with my relatives in Poland that they do not make as big a deal of Christmas as we do here in America. For one thing, Christmas Eve is a solemn day and a day of fast and abstinence. The Wiglia dinner that is a tradition in Polish households is a meatless meal, generally with no cakes or dessert type items. It is not a day of celebration but a day of quiet and somber anticipation and prayer and a day of preparation for Christmas Day. It is not a day of gifts and joy.

Christmas Day is a day of celebration in Poland but my favorite source for information on the life of Polish farmers in the 1800s, The Peasants, gives no mention of gift exchanging on Christmas Day. There is not even a reference to making gifts ahead of time or giving thought to gifts for family and friends. I guess it could have been an intentional omission by the author, but he goes into such detail about so many other celebrations, holidays, and traditions that I find it hard to imagine that he would not even mention anyone getting a Christmas gift of any sort if it was a common tradition. In fact, he paints Christmas as a day of rest from work in the fields, a day spent with family, and a day with a big dinner. And there's church attendance too of course. But that's it.

I have finished three seasons of the book and there is casual mention of gift-giving for other occasions but not for Christmas. For instance, Reymont mentions wedding gifts, baptism gifts, and I'm-sweet-on-you gifts. Evidently women valued red coral bead necklaces even more highly than amber. (In the book one character is envied by the other women in the village because she was given several strands of red coral beads from her husband.) I would have thought amber would have been more valued but perhaps not since it is mined and readily available in Poland. Amber beads are mentioned in the book but not with the reverence of red coral.

So, I guess I'll just have to keep wondering about the gift-giving of my ancestors. Either that or I'll have to spend time doing some online research on the topic. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to do that now. Christmas is coming and I have a pile of gifts to wrap!

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No, this ornament isn't amber. But I wish it was! I bought this ornament several years ago from a favorite department store of mine (Jacobsons) that was going out of business. The ornament appealed to me because it looked like a piece of golden amber. Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a Christmas ornament that was made of amber, or even highlighted with pieces of amber. Hmmm. Maybe I should make one! What a great idea! I have some amber pieces... now all I need is a design and the time to put it together. Stay tuned to see what happens...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas Traditions and Decorations of My Ancestors

After reading Randy's excerpt from his great grandmother's journal for Christmas 1929, I got to thinking again about how my own great grandparents might have celebrated Christmas. In my case, only one set of my great grandparents would have celebrated any of their Christmases in America. The other three sets of my great grandparents lived their lives in Poland. I'll look again at Christmas traditions mentioned in The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont for reference on celebrations in rural Poland in the late 1800s and then touch on something I learned this past weekend about how my great grandparents who immigrated to America might have decorated their home for Christmas.
...In all the huts they were busy making bread, especially the strucle, or wheaten bread, with poppy-seed-sprinkled crust; and this seed was also being pounded in mortars for other much-liked dainties.

Yes, Yule-tide was at hand; the feast of the Divine Child, the joyful day of wondrous goodwill to men; the blessed respite from the long never-ending round of labor, to arouse the souls of men from their wintry torpor, and shake off the grey dullness of everyday life, and make them go forward joyfully and with a glad thrill of the heart, to meet the day of our Lord's Nativity.

They all were very busy inside the cabin. Yuzka, humming a tune, was cutting out of colored paper some of those curious figures which they stick for decoration either on the beams or on the picture-frames, making them look as if painted in brilliant colors. Yagna, her sleeves turned up almost to her shoulders, was kneading in the trough with her mother's aid; now preparing the long strucle, and loaves of the finest four (she was hurrying, for the dough had already risen, and she had to fashion the loaves instantly); now casting an eye on Yuzka's work; now seeing to the honey-and-cheese-cakes, that were rising under warm coverings, and awaiting their turn for the baking-oven; and now flying round to where the fire roared up the chimney.
This excerpt is from the Christmas Eve day preparations described in Reymont's book. The "strucle" referred to is what we would now recognize as a poppyseed roll. Poppyseed filled and garnished pastries were a favorite among Poles and I remember my mother making both poppyseed and nut rolls at Christmas time. The honey and cheese cakes referred to must have been a pastry of some sort but no specific one stands out in my mind. I'll have to consult with my favorite Polish baker about this.

There is no mention made of having a Christmas tree in their homes but later in the chapter, Reymont mentions decorated trees in the church during midnight Mass on Christmas. What is mentioned in the way of home decoration is the colored paper cut outs called "Wycinanki" (though he doesn't use that term). I have one of these on the wall in my family room. Here's a picture of it.

It's also interesting to note Reymont's understanding and acknowledgment of the drudgery of everyday peasant life and how welcomed a holiday respite was for the people. I wouldn't say my life is full of drudgery but I do appreciate having Christmas Day as a day of respite ;-)

And now a quick note about some observations I made on Sunday. I went to Greenfield Village in Dearborn and did the walking tour of the village homes decorated with period decorations. For the most part it was what I'd expected to see, trees with homemade and paper ornaments, strings of popcorn or colored paper rings, and candles instead of strings of electric lights. It wasn't until I got home and was looking at the photos I'd taken that I that I made a couple of observations: 1) most of the Christmas trees were not full-sized trees but rather what we think of as table-top trees; and 2) all but one of the homes (Orville and Wilbur Wright's home) had their tree set up in the middle of the parlor... didn't need to be near a wall outlet and could be viewed from all areas of the room. It really set the small trees off and made them the focal point of the room. If you're interested in seeing photos of the period Christmas trees I photographed, I've uploaded them to my online photo gallery. I invite you to check them out.

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This little happy-faced sun brightens my tree every year. It's made of glass, in Poland, and I picked it up up at an after-Christmas sale at a gift shop. Even on a cloudy, gloomy day I can look at this ornament and feel happy :-)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Christmas Cleaning

I'm sitting in my living room, gazing at my Christmas tree and holiday decorations (that have taken me three days to put up and I'm not done yet) and thinking about Christmases past. I'm thinking about how my preparations for the holiday season are very different from that of my ancestors and yet in some ways they are the same.

In the book, The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont, he describes cleaning the house as the beginning of the preparations for Christmas. Evidently this was done early on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Since daybreak on Christmas Eve, the whole village was in a state of feverish excitement and bustling activity... Every cabin - Macheck's, Simon's, the Voyt's, and who can say how many more? - was now being aired and scoured and scrubbed, and the rooms, the passages, and even the snow in front of the huts, were strewn with fresh pine-needles; in some dwelling the hearths, grown black and dingy, had also been withwashed.
The peasants in Poland in the 1800s, like all people in the old days, didn't devote a lot of time to cleaning. It may sound a little disgusting but times were different then. People spent most of their time doing what they had to do to survive... ranching, farming, smithing, cooking, making clothing, feeding babies, etc. A thorough cleaning was something that was done for special occasions.

Reymont references "whitewashing" the walls of the homestead. This was done in place of painting the walls. These were relatively poor people who lived in buildings with dirt floors. Most often the homesteads housed people in one or two rooms on one side of the building and the barn animals on the other side with an access door between them. It was actually a very efficient set up if a family had only a relatively few animals, which tended to be the case. One stove heated the house and could also take the chill off for the animals at the same time. It also made it easier to get to the animals first thing in the morning to milk them and feed them, especially when brutal winds and heavy snow moved in over night.

From the web site, a photo of a display from the Ethnographic Museum which shows the white washed walls, wood stove for heating and cooking, and some cooking utensils.

Also from the web site, a photo from the Ethnographic Museum. This display shows how one room is used for both eating and sleeping. The wood floor was not common in peasant homes. Most had dirt floors.

Also from the web site, this photo shows the "other side" of the house where the animals would have been housed.

It looks kind of cozy but I'm sure when periods of bad weather came along it would have felt like the walls were closing in. When I look at these pictures I can imagine my ancestors cleaning homesteads just like these in preparation for the Christmas holiday. I will make sure my own house is clean in preparation for Christmas too, but I think I'll pass on the whitewashing of the walls. And I'll be doing that cleaning a few days before Christmas, not the morning of Christmas Eve.

As a child, I remember my mom giving our house a good cleaning before we put up the Christmas tree and decorations. Perhaps that was a custom she learned from her mother who was born in Poland in late 1800s. Then again, my mom was one of those whose floor you could eat off of any day of the week. Perhaps I am looking for connections with the old country ways where their are none.

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It's hard to see without looking at the larger image but the ornament in this photo is a peacock. It's a glass ornament made in Poland with an actual peacock feather for a tail. I found a set of 4 of these ornaments on a clearance table at a Polish import store for $10. The Polish people are fond of birds and you'll find images of them throughout their folk art. Most commonly you'll see roosters, doves, and eagles (crest of Poland) but peacocks are not uncommon either.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

How Did Your Ancestors Celebrate Christmas?

Do you ever wonder what Christmas was like for your ancestors? I do. Every year at this time I gaze at the names on my family tree and I wonder what Christmas was like for them.

It's easy to imagine what Christmas was like for my grandparents after they came to America. I've heard some stories, seen some movies, and read some books which together paint a picture for me of Christmas in the first half of the twentieth century in Detroit. The picture is in black and white by the way, like It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. I even have some photos of my grandparents by their Christmas tree (in black and white of course).

I can smell all the goodies baking... my maternal grandparents owned a bakery so the yeasty smell of fresh-from-the-oven rye bread (their specialty), along with the rich scents of gooey cinnamon buns, thick and chewy gingerbread, and sparkling sugar cookies all play into my image of their Christmas. I've also heard my mother's stories about putting up the Christmas tree (a real pine of course) but not lighting it until Christmas Eve. No electric lights on the tree... candles only. And the tree was lit on Christmas Eve only for 30-60 minutes or so, the length of time it took for the candles to burn down. There were always buckets of water nearby just in case. Everyone would stand around and oooh and aaah the whole while, sing a couple of Polish Christmas carols, and feel the spiritual magic of Christmas.

My paternal grandparents didn't own a bakery so my image of their Christmases doesn't smell quite as good but they only lived a few blocks away from my maternal grandparents so I imagine their Christmas as otherwise very similar. Same Polish neighborhood, same Polish Wigilia dinner on Christmas Eve, same walk to midnight Mass at the nearby Catholic church.

If I go back to my paternal great grandparents' Christmas after they came to America things get a little more interesting. They came in 1881, before automobiles and before electric lighting. They had a stable in their back yard and no doubt went around town in a horse-drawn sleigh or wagon and used candles or lanterns to light their homes. It's a little more of a stretch to imagine this but photos and postcards from the period help a lot.

If I try to go back before these times to the Christmases of my earlier ancestors in Poland I draw a great big blank. I have no movies to rely on, no family stories, and until just recently, no books to read. Not only don't I read the Polish language but the peasantry in Poland were virtually all illiterate back in those days. They weren't able to write about their customs.

For years I have struggled trying to imagine the Christmases of my great grandparents in Poland but this year I finally have some insight. Thanks to The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont I now have a picture of Christmas in a peasant village in the 1800s in Poland. What's more, the villages mentioned in his book are about 30 miles from my maternal grandfather's village. So the customs, attire, architecture, and cuisine are likely to be essentially the same. This is a true treasure to me.

I haven't finished reading the book yet but I've read the sections on Autumn and Winter and I'm almost finished with Spring (it's a BIG book). I'll be sharing some of the Polish peasant Christmas in the days to come.

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One thing that Poland is known for is it's glass making. A sub-specialty in that arena is their high quality glass Christmas ornaments. The high end lines of ornaments from Christopher Radko and Curtis Adler are all made in Poland as is this ornament of a Polish lady in her folk dress. This particular style of dress was from the Lowicz area of Poland (right near the setting for Reymont's novel). Considering that Poland is land-wise only about the size of the state of New Mexico, there are quite a variety of folk dress styles. This is one of my favorite ornaments and I keep it in my curio cabinet year round. It was purchased at a Polish import store in Detroit.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Everything but the kitchen sink

My writing is going well so I thought I'd take a few minutes out to catch up on things.

First off, I've now written 12,647 words of my novel and am still going strong. Yeah! I've settled into a rhythm of writing and the story is beginning to take shape. I'm really enjoying the freedom to let my characters evolve as they will and a plot is emerging. I have to admit that I was really doubtful that this way of writing would suit me. I'm generally a planner. I like to make lists and even though I don't always accomplish what's on my lists I find they help me prioritize and focus. When I started this novel without a plot outline or character bios I feared this thing had danger and potential disaster written all over it. I'd liken it to trying the trapeze without a net when you've never been on a trapeze before. Definitely a situation to be avoided. But the farther along I go, the more confidence I get. I feel like I'm spinning a pretty good tale. So far. It's still early and I may be eating my words next week (week 2 is usually the hardest to get through) but for now, I'm happy :-) I've added a participation widget to the left column on my blog so you can follow my progress if you care to.

Canon EF28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM (Photography)
OK, so what's all this gibberish? This is the new image stabilized zoom lens I got for my birthday last week. It has a new home on my Digital Rebel and we're getting to know each other little by little. This is a great lens but its taking some getting used to. For one thing, it's big. And heavy. But I'm getting used to that. I may have to start doing some upper body weight training to get really comfortable with it but hey, I need the exercise anyway, right? I'm just kidding. While the lens is much bigger and heavier than my previous lens it really isn't all that hard to get used to. I just became accustomed to carrying around my little (and I mean little!) ELPH and relative to that the Rebel with a zoom takes a bit more effort to handle. But boy is it worth it. It takes great pictures (better than me ;-) !

Orchard Lake Campus (Photography)
I made a trip out to the Orchard Lake campus (our Polish University) Sunday. It was great weather for taking pictures and that campus is very picturesque. It was also the day of the presentation on amber. It was a great opportunity to try out the new zoom lens, indoors and out. I started outdoors with photos of some of the buildings, the grotto, views of the lake and the quadrangle. Then I moved indoors to the Galeria. I got there early, about an hour before the presentation was to begin. Pretty much had the place to myself. The amber collection was absolutely exquisite. I took lots of pictures of the amber :-) Virtually all of the amber was behind glass and I don't yet have a polarizing filter for my zoom lens so if you check out the photos you'll see some glass glare. I also have some depth of field issues to address, but that's the sort of thing you have to get used to with a new lens. I had a chance to speak with the presenter, Patty Rice, PhD. She's very nice and very knowledgeable on the subject of amber. I've heard her speak before and she gives a very interesting presentation. She has a new book out and was doing book signings. Along with selling a companion CD to her book, she was also selling amber bracelets. I also saw peeks of the Polish art that is usually on display at the Galeria and made a mental note to get back out there soon to photograph that artwork.

This is my favorite piece from the exhibit; a doll embellished with amber.

The Peasants (Reading)
I'm really enjoying this book. I'm learning so much about the lifestyle of my ancestors in rural Poland in the 1800s. I find it both entertaining and enlightening. Reymont is a wonderful writer. It's no wonder he won a Nobel Prize for Literature. The book is sectioned by seasons. So far I've read Autumn and am roughly half way through Winter. Interesting characters, compelling story line, colorful descriptions, all make for a great read.

Over the years as I've researched my family history forwards, backwards, and every which way, I was fortunate enough to find family members living in Poland, Sweden, Ireland, France and Germany (and other parts of the U.S. too). These family members have been my richest sources of information on the history of my grandparents' families and what happened to those that stayed behind in Poland and didn't immigrate to the U.S. What I found most fascinating was that some of them had saved letters and photos sent to them nearly a hundred years ago by my grandparents and even passed them on to their children who also saved them. I've been sent some of these pieces now and then and was always touched by the generosity of those who would share them with me... and moved by the faces of my grandparents in their prime and my parents as small children. In yesterday's mail I received a virtual treasure chest of such items from a first cousin once removed living in Germany. I was moved to tears when I opened the large envelope and pulled out many pieces of my grandparents lives that I had never seen before. My heart is full of joy.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A New Book in My Library

My sweetie bought me a book for Sweetest Day. It's a book I've been wanting for some time and I'm thrilled to have it. The book is, The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont. You may not be familiar with this book but Mr. Reymont won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it in 1924. If you'd like to read his autobiography you can do so here. He died the year after he received the Nobel Prize. His life was almost as bleak and troubled as the lives of the peasants he wrote about, no doubt where he got his amazing insight.

Stephen Danko was reading this book a while ago
. Have you finished it Steve? Will there be a book review/reflections on your blog?

I'm looking forward to reading this book and to gaining an understanding of the lives of my ancestors, who were all peasants in Poland. There aren't very many texts available (in English) that give a good description of the daily lives of 19th century peasant life. As I'm reading it, I'll be looking for cultural themes and rituals that made the trip to America with the Polish immigrants. How many do you think survived? It will be interesting to see.