Potluck at Westshore Unitarian Church and the Croatian XMAS Exhibit

On Sunday, November 25th, we were winding down from the Thanksgiving Holiday and planned to only take in the opening of the annual Christmas exhibit at the Croatian Heritage Museum and Library on Lakeshore Blvd. in Eastlake later in the afternoon.

Earlier, however, we went over to the Westshore Unitarian Church on Hilliard Blvd. in Rocky River for the fellowship of the worship service not knowing what it would be about.

Thus we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this particular day was that of the annual Thanksgiving potluck and the title of the sermon was, quite appropriately, “A Seat at the Welcome Table” wherein Reverend Michelle Ma, the church’s intern minister, talked about how a potluck has the potential to be a microcosm for the struggles that our society faces in terms of bringing people together of different faiths and backgrounds for sharing unique parts of themselves and finding similarities.

Reverend Ma, the child of parents who immigrated to the United States from one of the Asian countries, said that food is a form of cultural expression and while certain practices could be questionable to some people (i.e. people who have lived here all of their lives watching immigrants from Asian countries eating the cartilage of bones while enjoying a beef dinner) it can also serve as a unifying factor.

To be sure, a potluck has its obvious pluses and its minuses. On the positive side, the host doesn’t have to worry about cooking and guests can anticipate a variety of dishes while, on the downside, there are those of us who have dietary restrictions and one never knows if there will be an appropriate balance between entrees and desserts.

Nevertheless, Reverend Ma contended (and we agree) that a certain amount of risk is necessary if something truly worthwhile is to be achieved and the benefits of a potluck (i.e. the coming together of peoples and the foods of their cultures) far outweigh the possible drawbacks.

Near the conclusion, Reverend Ma stated that she was very much looking forward to sitting down and sharing a table with people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds to enjoy a meal whose contents would be delightfully uncertain. She believed (as did we) that it would be a community-building experience.

“We love our bread, we love our butter,” said Reverend Ma as she happily beamed, “but most of all we love each other.”

(Note: we, too, attended the potluck and, not surprisingly considering the season, that there was a lot of turkey available for consumption. But, as established vegetarians, we had no problem combining elements from the side dishes into a nutritious meal. It was a good time for us because, due to our schedule, we don’t get to attend Westshore as often as we would like so we had some good “let’s get to know each other” conversations with those we were not as familar with as we would have liked. Let it be said that afterwards, we all came together once again to help wash the dishes and utensils as well as to clean the the banquet hall.)

Very soon afterwards, we were off to the Croatian Museum see what our friend, Ms. Branka Malinar, the museum’s curator, had organized for the holidays. As we have written before, Ms. Malinar is consistent each year in depicting the Christmas traditions of Croatia while trying to depict a different region of her homeland. As usual, Ms. Malinar and those working with her who in this case were  Ms. Melita Ragus, Ms. Mila Mandic, and Mr. Tom Turkaly did a beautiful job.

Last year in 2017, for example, the costumes worn by the mannequins were those of Prigorje, a fairly low to middle class area, while this year they were of Slavonija, which is a more prosperous region. Accordingly, the clothes were more brightly colored and were made from silk with intricate gold threading and elaborate lace work.

On the walls, there were photos of various holiday foods like honey spices cookies in the shape of hearts, a bread dough dish called “mlince” that is often popularly served with roast duck, and a strudel dough dish referred to as “burek” which can contain a variety of fillings.

Another placard described the importance of psenica sa svijecama/wheat with candles. It read that “on the feast of St. Lucy, December 13th, the mother of the family plants wheat grains in a round dish. By Christmas Eve, the tender green shoots, which have been trimmed to grow evenly, have reached the height of about eight inches. They are tied with a ribbon–trobojnica, the Croatian tricolor–and, in most regions, one of three candles are placed in the center of the grown wheat. It remains the centerpiece of the Christmas table until the Feast of the Three Kings, symbolizing the coming of the Light of the World–Christ–and the life He brings to us at this holiday season.

In addition to the placards which told of the significance of the various foods and customs, there was one that in part read, “food and family mark the celebrations of religious feasts and the major milestones of life. It is around the table, often filled with symbolic foods, that the family is joined in a sense of past, present, and future. In this continuity of generations it is acknowledged a debt to those who came before and a responsibility to those who are yet to come…

The Croatian Museum was established some 35 years ago and is open most Friday afternoons. We urge our readers to try to get over to view the Christmas exhibit over the holidays. More information can be found at www.croatianmuseum.com