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Tete-a-tete: Eat your heart out, Festivus: Stymchastynchula is here

With Thanksgiving now firmly under our belts, there’s a whole slew of winter holidays to which we can look forward. Depending on your religious affiliation, ethnicity and cultural preferences, you may celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Saint Lucia’s Day or even Festivus.

This year, a holiday that forms an important part of my heritage also happens to fall in December. It is Stymchastynchula (pronounced stim-CHAH-stin-CHU-la), a celebration that does not discriminate against any race, creed, ethnicity, income bracket and so forth.

Stymchastynchula originated in Pennsylvania back when Dad was a university student. A new era of political correctness was dawning, and, with Kwanzaa still relatively new on the holiday scene, professors were making a concerted effort to respect the backgrounds of their students.

When Dad forgot to study for a test, therefore, he knew exactly what to say to his professor:

“I can’t take the test today. It’s Stymchastynchula, the holiest day of my people, and I’m forbidden to write with my right hand.”

The professor was a little suspicious, but rather than question Dad and come across as insensitive or intolerant, she allowed him to postpone the test.

Though Dad made up the holiday on the fly, cobbling the name together out of Polish and Slovak words he had heard his grandparents use, Stymchastynchula has been a crucial element of my siblings’ and my childhoods.

Over the years, the restrictions of the holiday have changed from not being allowed to write with your right hand to not being allowed to do any work whatsoever. After all, Stymchastynchula should be for lefties, too.

Coupled with the floating nature of the holiday (it can be invoked at any time), Stymchastynchula remains a favorite excuse of ours to this day. As in, “I can’t fold the laundry! It’s Stymchastynchula!”

I personally prefer to celebrate the holiday in December, as it makes for a refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations. I do occasionally observe an auxiliary Stymchastynchula or two, such as when the driveway needs to be shoveled.

Since the holiday has been around for several decades and still lacks a convincing background story, I thought I would come up with one myself. And so, I give you the imaginary hagiography of St. Ymcha of Stynchula.

St. Ymcha was a cabbage farmer in the rural village of Stynchula in what is now Poland during the 11th century. He was not a particularly successful cabbage farmer, preferring to spend his time in prayer and contemplation of the Scriptures.

One evening, St. Ymcha was shredding cabbage leaves into a bowl for his dinner while reading the parable of the lost sheep. As he studied Jesus’ story of the shepherd who goes to great lengths to rescue a sheep that has gone astray, St. Ymcha was so moved by the great love of God embodied in this parable that he wept over his bowl of shredded cabbage for seven days and seven nights.

After he had finished weeping, St. Ymcha then praised God, singing psalms and hymns for twice seven days and seven nights. He likely would have continued longer, but his stomach began to growl and he remembered his simple dinner of shredded cabbage leaves.

Lo and behold, the salt water of his tears had soaked the cabbage, and his extended time of worship had given the mixture time to ferment. St. Ymcha’s procrastination in the preparation of his meal had resulted in the miraculous creation of the first bowl of sauerkraut, now a staple of Polish cuisine.

St. Ymcha was immediately canonized, making him the only saint to be canonized while still living, and named the patron saint of procrastinators and excuse-makers. In modern times, his patronage has been extended to include convenience store food and pre-packaged snack cakes.

In addition to abstaining from work, the feast day of St. Ymcha, known as Stymchastynchula, is best celebrated by eating food that requires little to no effort to prepare. Takeout is encouraged, as is the consumption of microwave popcorn, toaster waffles, 7-Eleven hot dogs and, of course, sauerkraut.

As we become further embroiled in the preparations required for Christmas, Hanukah, National Fried Shrimp Day and the numerous other holidays that fall in December, I hope you will take some time to celebrate Stymchastynchula. Microwave some popcorn, watch a movie with the family and focus on those aspects of life that are truly important.

And remember: because Stymchastynchula is a floating holiday, it doesn’t have to happen on a set date. It’s there for you whenever you need it – and as many times as you need it.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Nov. 28, 2012.

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