Learning Polish for Christmas

To my knowledge, Mr. (Oscar) Bixby didn’t dress up like Santa Claus. He never handed me a wrapped Christmas package or laughed with a hearty “ho, ho, ho.”

Thinking back though, he did often have a twinkle in his eyes. He had a distinctive laugh and enjoyed life. He wore reading glasses like those in some representations of the jolly old elf. And he did give me a very special present that I have passed on to others.

I first met Mr. Bixby as a freshman at Dunkirk High School. He taught Latin 1. At the age of 13, I began to learn about declining nouns and conjugating verbs.

From Mr. Bixby, I learned about “50 cent” English words. That concept might not make much sense to younger people today. When I went to school, 50 cents was a decent amount of money, enough to buy five large glasses of Coke (10-cent Cokes) or 10 small 5-cent Cokes.

Many of the difficult or “50 cent” words in English are derived from Latin. For example, antebellum comes from two Latin words. Quite simply, “ante” is the Latin word for “before” and “bellum” the word for war. Being able to decode “50 cent” words was very useful when taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

During the Christmas season we learned to sing “Adeste Fideles” (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”) in Latin class.

In my junior year, rather than continue with Latin, I decided to start French.

Mr. Bixby taught all the French classes at all levels. The twinkle in his eye was more pronounced while teaching French. It was a language still spoken so each morning we spoke. We talked about what we had for breakfast as he pointed to his bulletin board of breakfast food. He even reprimanded students in French. “Put your feet on the floor” and “put your gum in the wastebasket” were commands delivered in French.

Mostly I think he loved to sing. We learned the mandatory “Frere Jacques,” “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon” and “Alouette.” The Christmas season was his favorite time. We sang carols like “He is Born the Holy Child,” “O Holy Night” and “Bring a Torch” in French. He had mimeographed sheets of songs he passed out and collected at the end of class.

At DHS, students could choose from German, French, Spanish or Latin. There was a language club for each language. The year I was a junior, the language teachers decided to have a joint Christmas party. Each club would sing carols in the language its members were studying.

Beforehand, Mr. Bixby approached me.

“My dear girl,” he asked, “do your parents have a record of Polish Christmas carols?”

He told me that he wanted to chose a carol and do a translation of it. He said Polish Christmas carols (Koledy) were unique and very beautiful.

“There are so many Polish here and you are losing your language,” he said.

I brought him a record my parents had. I had heard the carols in church and often listened to them. I knew the melodies but could not sing the words.

One night, Mr. Bixby called and asked to speak to my mother. Although I could hear only one end of the conversation, I knew that Mom was translating individual words from Polish to English. He called back at about 10 p.m. that night and to my surprise, the two began singing to each other over the phone. My mother was happy that she could help and that a teacher valued her tradition.

For the Christmas party, we sang “Dzisiaj w Betlejem.” (Today in Bethlehem). While the translation is not entirely literal, it was beautifully done with the rhythm of the English matching the notes of the carol and expressing the same feeling.

O happy tidings!

In Bethlehem a little child is born.

The blessed Virgin gives to the world

a saviour on this morn.

Jesus is born oh joy everlasting.

Kings kneel before him

Angels are playing

Harken! Shepherds singing

Hear the cattle lowing

All the world rejoices today.

I practiced the Polish words and that night both my cousin (Neal Rzepkowski) and I as well as some other students there were able to sing in both Polish and English. Neal had lived with our grandmother and had a better knowledge of Polish than I did.

When I taught third grade in a Catholic elementary school, I wrote to Mr. Bixby asking for a mimeographed sheet of the French carols we sang. We had to present a short Christmas program. The school had mostly Polish and Slovak students. So I taught my children Adeste Fideles, Dzisiaj w Betlehem, Bring a Torch, and had a nun of Slovak background teach a carol. We sang one verse of each in both English and the other language.

Years later, I took a group of Girl Scouts Christmas caroling. We used Mr. Bixby’s sheet of songs and his translation of the Polish carol. Cecile Gagne, who was my daughter’s piano teacher, helped the troop with music. She too loved Polish Christmas carols and immediately was able to play the music to this one.

Cecile is of French origin. For many years, she directed the choir and was the organist at the Polish parish we attended in Rome, N.Y. The midnight mass under her direction always contained the beautiful carols I listened to as a child.

My daughter and I attended many midnight masses together. We would eagerly await Dzisiaj w Betlehem and proudly sing the words to the first verse.

Thank you, Mr. Bixby, for the gift of a translation that I have cherished and passed on.

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