Christmas is special time. It is believed that if Christmas sees no snow, Easter certainly will-or more artfully, "If the Christmas tree sinks in water, the egg rolls on ice." Other sayings include, "A sunny Christmas Eve brings fair weather all year round"; "Stars that shine bright on Christmas Eve will make hens lay plenty of eggs"; "A shine on the birth of our Savior will be seen all throughout January."
Christmas Eve dinner
For days in advance, Poles prepare the traditional food and everyone anxiously awaits the moment when the first star, known as the Gwiazdka, appears in the eastern sky. For that is when the feast to commemorate the birth of the Christ Child begins. There is always a thin layer of hay under the white tablecloth in memory of the Godchild in the manger. Before sitting down at the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer (Polish: Opłatek) and exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. This is such a deeply moving moment that often tears of love and joy are evoked from the family members who are breaking this symbolic bread. The Oplatek is a thin, unleavened wafer similar to the altar bread in the Roman Catholic Church. It is stamped with the figures of the Godchild, the blessed Mary, and the holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of love and is often sent by mail to the absent members of the family.
The dinner itself differs from other evening meals in that the number of courses is fixed at 12. According to myth, in no case must there be an odd number of people at the table, otherwise it is said that some of the feasters would not live to see another Christmas. A lighted candle in the windows symbolizes the hope that the Godchild, in the form of a stranger, may come to share the Wigilia and an extra place is set at the table for the unexpected guest. This belief stems from the ancient Polish adage, "A guest in the home is God in the home." The Wigilia is a meatless meal, no doubt the result of a long-time Church mandate that a strict fast and abstinence be observed on this day before Christmas. Items that would normally be included in a traditional Wigilia menu include mushroom soup, boiled potatoes, pickled herring, fried fish, pierogi, beans and sauerkraut, a dried fruit compote, babka cake, assorted pastries, nuts and candies as well as kutia (a mix of soaked wheat, raisins, nuts, honey and spices)
After the meal the members of the family sing Polish Christmas Carols called (Polish: kolędy) while the children wait impatiently around the Christmas tree (Polish: Choinka) for the gifts to be exchanged.
The Christmas Eve Mass celebrated at midnight is called the Pasterka, which means the Shepherds Watch, and there is popular belief in Poland that while the congregation is praying, peace descends on the snow-clad, sleeping earth and that during that holy night, the humble companions of men - the domestic animals - assume voices. But only the innocent of heart may hear them.
Christmas Day itself is spent in rest, prayer, and visits to various members of the family. In Poland, from Christmas Day until the twelfth night, boys trudge from village to village with an illuminated star and a ranting King Herod among them to sing carols. Sometimes, they penetrate the towns in expectation of more generous gifts. In some districts, the boys carry on puppet shows called shopky. These are built like a little house with two towers, open in the front where a small crib is set. The Christmas season closes on February 2, known as Candlemas Day. On that day, people carry candles to church and have them blessed for use in their homes during storms, sickness and death.
A long-time tradition in Poland during the Christmas season is the building of "Szopki" (pronounced shop-key), which are elaborate form of the Nativity scene. This tradition started back in the 13th century in Krakow, and remains an annual tradition whereas major prizes are awarded for the most elaborately decorated and designed Szopki. This is a miniature version of a Christmas Szopka. The Krakowian creches sometimes reach 6 feet in height. Their construction is based on elements of Krakow's historic architecture including Gothic spires, Renaissance facades and Baroque-topped domes.
Święty Mikołaj (St. Nicholas)
The feast of St. Nicholas is on December 6th. On this day, Św. Mikołaj would visit the homes of people in the village, dressed in his bishop’s robes. When Św. Mikołaj visited the children, he gave them a gift for being good and to remind them of the gifts given to the Christ Child by the Three Kings. Celebrating the feast day of Św. Mikołaj remains popular with Polish people living all over the world. Many of the Christmas customs celebrated today are a result of the early visits made by St. Nicholas. For example, the candy cane given during the Christmas holidays is a simple treat symbolizing the shepherd’s staff, which is carried by a bishop. Św. Mikołaj is called the “Father of Christmas” (“Santa Claus”).
Did you know that:
- the main Polish Christmas meal consists of 12 courses.
- Polish Christmas carols date back to 14th century.
- Have you heard of Polish crèche (szopka) ? It is not only a tradition, it is a fierce competition when the best of best meet each year in Kracow.