St. Basil’s Romanian Catholic Church on Adeline Street in Trenton, New Jersey is a sandstone building built by immigrants, including two of my great-great-grandfathers. Nearly one hundred Romanian immigrants and their descendants gather in its basement on the Sunday before Christmas to sing Romanian carols and eat stuffed cabbages for the Colinde. Some years, the children receive gifts from Santa Claus, other years from a Russian-looking Saint Nicholas (my Uncle Fred). The recent immigrants resemble those who came to America a century ago, with little more than the clothes on their backs, the addresses of relatives and a willingness to work hard. In a country increasingly hostile to immigrants, the tradition remains more precious than ever. My father’s family, the Magyars, has attended for generations.
The celebration of the Colinde derives from the tradition of singers traveling from farm to farm in the Romanian countryside, caroling for food and drink and shelter. The Colinde—or, “Romanian Christmas,” as we called it—consists of a traditional Mass, followed by rounds of caroling in both Romanian and English, and a feast of endless Eastern European food, historically consumed by peasants (certainly) and kings (likely). The Byzantine Rite service is conducted partly in Romanian, partly in English. After Mass, the congregation is led down to the church basement. A hundred guests gather in the big hall not only for the music and food, but also to pay homage to their ancestors, who arrived in this country in waves starting about 115 years ago. Beneath the festive red-and-green paper chains, the basement walls are filled with black-and-white photos of bowling teams, church choirs, garishly garbed Bishops and young dancers in traditional Romanian dress. Plastic tablecloths cover long tables, hand-stapled caroling books set upon the paper plates at each seat, a drawing of a Romanian peasant smiling on the cover. Steaming trays filled with stuffed cabbage, sausages and all forms of starch are lined at the buffet along the wall.
The Colinde mingles the Americanized grandchildren and great-grandchildren—whose ancestors fled Romania just after the turn of the century to work in Trenton’s steel mills with those who emigrated just before (and after) the fall of Ceausescu. The men in black leather jackets and greased back hair, the women in heavy mascara, they look like they left Eastern Europe yesterday. They were running first from a lack of hope under communism, and then from a deflating poverty afterwards. The gathering place for Romanians in Trenton, St. Basil’s services the factory-workers turned schoolteachers and nurses; the ascendance, ever so slowly, to white-collar professions. While St. Basil’s exterior is humbled by the Polish church just up the street and resides on a nondescript city block; the interior of the church is intricately decorated—oil paintings adorn the walls and the ceilings, and stained-glass windows look out onto the city streets. This dichotomy paralleled the harshness of life as an Eastern European immigrant on the outside, and the warmth emitting from the community flourishing within.
The Magyars are from a very poor country but we were not always a poor people. Centuries ago, we were royalty. We are descended from the first family of the Hungarian Court: the wives of the Prince of Wallachia (also known as Dracula) and the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus and Janos Hunyadi, the general who saved Christendom from the Turks. While Dracula’s first wife committed suicide—she jumped from the battlement of a mountaintop castle into the River Arges—his second wife, our ancestor, outlived her husband. Our Szilagyis and Magyars and Apais endure and survive.
There is a folk saying about Magyars: “the Magyars are the only people who can go into a revolving door after you and come out in front of you.”
Dracula’s Castle over the Arges River is now littered in trash and plagued by vagrants. Royal titles were exchanged for work in steel mills. Like most families at St. Basil’s, the Magyars arrived in America to escape destitution at home. Romanian Americans settled in factory towns like Trenton, from New Jersey to Illinois. Like his father before him, my grandfather, Joe, was a “Roebling man,” a proud union steelworker at the company that built the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate. Joe was proud of his family, proud of where he was from, the places he grew up, the people that he loved and the man that he was. The odds were not always stacked in his favor, but he played with relish the hand he was dealt.
During the Colinde, newly-arrived immigrants in faded jeans and bleached hair file into pews alongside families whose Romanian roots have become Americanized. My immediate family was the most striking example of the latter, in our khakis and blazers. My father was the first in his family to go to college and also the first in the family to move away from Trenton. Change is inevitable: immigrant societies dissipate as later generations attain new levels of success. Yet, very few Romanian-American communities are as well-preserved as the one that has congregated at St. Basil’s Church for five generations. I feel very lucky to have a cultural home to return to every year, to celebrate my family’s history. There is nothing more American than our trajectory of struggle and persistence: an immigrant story unfolding daily across the country, in millions of homes. May we honor and remember them this holiday season.
Katherine is a weekly columnist for Roar. A freelance writer and editor based in New York City, she writes frequently about culture, political and social issues, literature, and travel. She received her master’s degree from The New School, with honors in nonfiction writing. Follow her work at www.katherineparkermagyar.com.