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Photo by Sophia Hwangbo, Graphics by Aarushi Kumar and Ruhani Suresh

Junior Alexa Nanevicz

Junior Alexa Nanevicz

For as long as she can remember, junior Alexa Nanevicz has celebrated Polish heritage during the holidays, making traditional Polish dishes with her family. Every Christmas Eve, the Nanevicz family works together to prepare a meal to share. “Usually my parents will organize it and have my brother [and I] make the individual pieces of the food,” Nanevicz said. “My favorite things to make are the pierogies, because it’s fun to make them in different sizes and play with the dough.”

After her great-grandfather on her father’s side immigrated to California from Poland, the Naneviczs have kept traditional recipes alive by celebrating and cooking together during the holidays as well as passing them down through generations. “The tradition is at least as old as I can remember, but I’m sure it’s older than me,” Nanevicz said. “I’ve never been [to Poland], [but] my brother and I have an idea of what it is like there.”

Her family’s Christmas Eve meal consists of several different traditional Polish foods. Though pierogies (dough encasing various fillings, similar to dumplings) are Nanevicz’s favorite to make, she also helps make sczleisicki (similar to a pierogi but with cheese inside) and Gobki (meat and onions wrapped in a shell of boiled cabbage).

The Nanevicz family typically takes a “divide and conquer” strategy with the grand meal. Nanevicz’s family will make a couple of dishes, as will her uncle’s family and her grandparents. Nanevicz’s preparation of her portion of the food with her brother and parents is one of the big highlights of the tradition. “Even though we make the same dishes every year, it always ends up looking a little different,” she said.

All the recipes, which Nanevicz’s mother manages, are passed down from her grandfather. “Everything has a lot of history to it,” Nanevicz said. “And it tastes really good.”

After each party prepares their food, the whole family meets at Nanevicz’s house to enjoy the meal. She recognizes how fortunate she is to be able to rejoice with her relatives over a special meal. “It’s really nice that my grandma and cousins live in the area,” Nanevicz said. “I’m happy that they’re close enough for everyone to get together—we’re definitely lucky that everyone can come to celebrate.”

Aside from the food, the Naneviczs celebrate other important traditions on Christmas Eve. For one, they always set an extra place at the table when eating the food they prepared. “It’s kind of made for if we lived in a rural town and someone passed through, needing a meal or a place to stay,” she said.

Though Palo Alto is far from a rural farm town, the Naneviczs continue the inclusive gesture. “One year, my neighbor happened to come over when we were eating and she sat at the extra spot we set,” she said. “I mean, it was kind of funny—she had no idea what was going on, but my whole family thought it was so great that the spot finally got some use.”

As always, Nanevicz is looking forward to creating and enjoying her meal on Christmas Eve this year. “For our family, making these dishes is really about remembering our Polish heritage and honoring that,” Nanevicz said. “It’s not really a huge part of my life most of the time, so it’s nice to have a day where we can all think about it together.”

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