Polish Christmas Traditions
About Polish Christmas Eve traditions and how to organize your own traditional Christmas.
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Christmas Eve is called Wigilia. It comes from latin word vigilare which means to be awake, watch, be vigilant, to keep vigil.
Christmas Eve in Poland is the greatest holiday of the year. Families travel from all over the country to gather on Christmas Eve.
Because it is such a big event, there is a great deal of preparation that goes into ensuring that the evening is spent following old Polish traditions.
The evening can be considered an event, or a series of events that unfold according to a traditional sequence.
We will follow the sequence of events involved in a Christmas Eve celebration in Poland according to Polish Christmas Traditions.
The host family lays out a formal setting with the best china. Under the table cloth there is placed a small batch of hay under the table cloth – a symbol of poverty in which Jesus was born. It also it stands for the hay on which Mary put the newborn baby. Old tradition was to put sheafs (bundles of straw) in the corners of the room. (Straw is also used to cover trunks of trees to protect from frost.)
A well appointed Christmas Tree is always present. It is a symbol of life. It was originally dressed in apples – which Adam and Eve shared – a tradition that came from German protestants in 18th century.
Ample space for presents – symbols of gifts we get from God – is made around the tree.
Some people have a small nativity under the Christmas tree or next to it. It portrays the scene from the Bible when Jesus was born: baby Jesus on hay in a crib, Holy Mary kneeling next to it, St. Joseph standing on the other side, in the back is a donkey and ox, in front of it are shepherds, on top of the shed is the Star of Bethlehem, above are angels, on January 6th, the three wise men are added.
As a note, Nativity Scenes – Szopka –are placed in churches, town markets, and squares.
In Poland nativity scenes in churches symbolize not only the birth of Jesus, but are often commentary to current events. A famous nativity scene was placed in the church of Stanislaw Kostka in the Warsaw Zoliborz district. It portrayed baby Jesus in a trunk of a car, grey figures next to the car. It was a commentary to the kidnapping and killing of the famous priest from this church, Jerzy Popieluszko in October 1984. He was kidnapped, tied, placed in the trunk of a car, then dumped into the Wisla river. This was done by communist secret service, because Popieluszko was closely connected with “Solidarity” and was preaching freedom for Poland on his monthly service called “mass for the homeland. A picture of this nativity scene may be seen at Poland Nativity Scene
The number of table settings equals the number of people expected to attend plus one. The extra plate is for the lonesome traveler who will be welcome at any time to join the celebration.
Each of the families knows in advance which dishes it will prepare and bring to the celebration. Note that the dinner is not potluck but rather contributory with each family bringing its traditional specialties made with recipes passed down over the years, generation to generation.
A large selection of bread and drink are made available on a side table. The drink selection includes juices and a traditional Polish Kompot. Note that Polish Kompot is different than compote.
The scheduled time to sit at the dinner table is that when the first star of Christmas can be seen in the skies. That first star is the symbol of the star of Bethlehem, which lead the three wise men to Jesus.
So families arrange to arrive before dark and dribble in as they come from all parts of the country. Gifts that they bring are stored in a side room.
All stand with the exception of the infirm and children. But none sit at the dinner table.
For those who bring food, to make it easy for it to be served at the appropriate time during the meal , they unpack their specialties in the kitchen in the appropriate staging area.
The Reading And Breaking Of The Wafer
After everyone has arrived, and the arrival commotion has calmed down, the host family proceeds with a reading from the Bible, namely Luke 2,1-14.
Then comes the sharing of Oplatek – a wafer of thin bread made from flour and water, you “share the wafer” (dzielenie sie oplatkiem), say your wishes to the other person, apologize for wrong doings and make peace with them, the only other places where people share the wafer is Lithuania and Slovakia.
The ritual sharing proceeds as each person breaks a piece of the wafer (oplatek) offered by the host and shares that wafer with everyone in the room. The wafer is offered, the offered person breaks off a very small piece, and the other does the same. They exchange hugs, three cheek to cheek kisses, and wish each other well by saying such things as.
In the villages, peasants share the wafer also with the animals in the barn. In the cities people also share it with their pets. There is a folk belief that at midnight animals speak in the human tongue.
The meal is supposed to be Lenten, no meat all day as well as at the evening meal, in the old days, on Christmas Eve people didn’t even eat breads and cakes baked with butter and/or milk
In the old days, peasants had 7 dishes, gentry had 9 and nobles had 11, (odd number for good luck). Now it is 12 – the number of Aposels. But that number is generally exceeded.
The main dish is fish. It is a lenten dish and it was a symbol of God in the early days of Christianity. Letters of the Greek word for fish stood for “Jesus Christos Theu Hios, Soter” “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”
The meal proceeds as a series of events or in a series of phases, each of which is defined by a particular type of dish.
Before the guests are invited to sit at the table, on it are placed the cold plates which include such things as a few herring selections, carp in aspic, and pike in aspic.They are attended by horseradish, lemon, mayonnaise, and plenty of different types of bread.
Note that eating is leisurely with a great deal of talk and camaraderie. This phase of the meal may go on for an hour or more.
When the hostess senses it is time for the change, the women clear the plates used for these foods and help serve the soup.
Generally, the soups are Borsch with Uszka, Mushroom or Fish.
Once again the eating is leisurely.
And once again when the hostess sees that it’s time for change, the women clear the soup plates and make ready for the presentation of the carp.
The carp, baked, poached or fried, is attended by plenty of horseradish, lemon and mayonnaise and, of coarse, bread.
Around now, people are starting to feel like they’ve eaten too much. In fact, many feel like that after they have consumed all the herring offerings plus the carp in aspic and pike in aspic with the copious amounts of breads that went along with them that were first on the table.
But the hostess is undaunted. The table is once again cleared and places make ready for cabbage and beans and pierogi.
Finally, people have to take a break from eating. So it is time to exchange presents.
The children are diverted by one means or another. While their attention is elsewhere, the gifts that have been stored in a side room are quickly put under the Christmas Tree. Each gift has a tag with the name of the intended recipient on it.
The children share the honor of reading the names and distributing the gifts. What ensues can be described as a family melee as presents are opened and everybody talks, exclaims and shares comments about what they have received.
Dessert And Drink
About now, it is time to get down to serious eating and drinking.
Out come the desserts, coffee, tea, juices and what ever else is offered.
Overwhelmed with food and drink, people get ready to go to the midnight Mass.
Having had the opportunity to participate in a Polish countryside Christmas Eve, you will have had the opportunity to have lived through one of the greatest Polish Christmas Traditions.