Post Eagle Newspaper


May 27, 2024

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New Jersey

Time Now


A Modjeska Christmas

Our esteemed Polish actress Helena Modjeska was called upon many Christmas holidays to perform in a variety of plays – and, many times, missed that traditional Polish Wigilia.

Fortunately, she penned her feelings about how she visualized that time in her homeland. Through the works of Marion Moore Coleman who authored a book entitled “Fair Rosalind,” we bring you the Helena Modjeska excerpt about ‘Christmas in Poland’….

“Long journeys are made by members of a scattered family, that all may be reunited under one roof-tree at the season of the Little Star (gwiazdka). This is the way we speak of Christmas: we have The Little Star Tree, the Little Star carols, Little Star presents. It is The Star of Bethlehem, of course, that is commemorated in this way, and as the star seems to be the thing in the beautiful soared story of the Nativity that has impressed the Polish imagination, it is natural that we should call our celebration of Christmas by that name.

  “Indeed, if I could be allowed the privileges of an Irishwoman in describing things Polish, I should say that it is Christmas Eve all day, the day before Christmas. Always there is snow on the ground, and all day long there is the jingle of sleighbells, as the skating parties come and go. Besides the sleighing and skating, shooting is the prop diversion until the indoor celebration begins with the appearance of the first star. Perhaps the children are eagerly on the lookout for it, thinking it is, indeed, the same star that guided The Wise Men.

  “And now comes The Little Star supper, a gala occasion, where all must meet as friends, and before the meal begins, must “break the wafer” (oplatek) with everybody, servants and children included, as a token of good will. Indeed, all must break it with each one twice, you breaking off a bit of my piece, and then I taking some from you piece to eat with you. The children are in great glee: all this mysterious breaking and eating is a delightful game to them, and then it is such a precious privilege to be allowed to have supper with grown, people, and to eat what they do. That is one of the features of The Little Star most esteemed by many little folks.

  “Beneath the tablecloth is spread some hay, in memory of the hay-filled manger where the little Jesus lay. On the table are a number of time-honored, Little Star dishes — but roast turkey and plum pudding are not among them. How would you like in their stead seven kinds of fish, and cake with poppyseed in it? The fish need not be of absolutely different species, but there must be seven different fish dishes. One of these is usually a soup, and then with baked fish, fried fish, fish cakes, etc., it is not hard to make out the number. There is properly two soups, the other one being of almonds.

  “All day the company has been fasting, and they bring royal appetites to the supper, so that the year through it seems as if scarcely another taste so good. By the way, we do not really call this meal either supper or dinner, but ‘the meal of the eve,’ (wigilia) and, as you see, it is unique.

  “After the meal of the eve, where shall I begin to describe all the festivities that follow it? The tree, the carols, the presents, the shopka. It is not the last only that is specially Polish. The rest of the world has carols and presents and trees, but not in the Polish fashion. The tree, for instance, is not standing on the floor, but is hung from the ceiling. Ah, how many a one have I helped to decorate, much as you decorate yours, only with no presents upon it, except the sweets and fruits that are for everybody. Then the presents — that a world of fun results from having a look for them! All over the room they are hidden, under sofas, behind mirrors, inside vases, beneath the table covers…. Every member of the company joins in the eager quest…. What a chance for cleaverness in hiding things! What delight, after your arms are full, and the tantalizing wrappings are being torn from mysterious packages, to receive a gentle hint that you have not properly completed your investigation, that there is still something for you to discover!

  “After the merriment has sunk into a gentler mood, the beautiful old carols are sung. Some of them are like Gregorian chants; nearly all are very old, the words quaint and primitive, and some of the music excellent….

  “While the carols are ringing out, comes the tramp of boys with the shopka at the front door. And what is the shopka? Literally, a little stable. It is a show, with marionettes for actors, where the story of the birth of Our Savior is played. It is one of the rare survivals of the old sacred dramas of the Middle Ages…. A great deal of the dialogue used by the boys is very old and curious. Interpolations, however, are always in order, and many political allusions and amusing characterizations of foreigners are brought in, quite in the spirit of the topical song Americans are so fond of…. Among the Wise Men who come to worship, the Divine Child in the little play are apt to figure all the most popular heroes of sacred and profane history, without the least regard for time or sequence….

  “Over the box in which the marionettes perform there is always a star, the ever present symbol of the season. There are stars in the shops, stars on the Christmas trees, stars of one material or another wherever they can be put.

  “After this the children, exhausted with pleasure, are sent to bed, but one important thing is still to be done by the grown people. At midnight they must all go to Mass. Into the waiting sleighs they bundle, and find the ride over the gleaming snow quieting and restful after the tumultuous amusement of the evening. From the beautiful service they return still singing quaint, worshipful carols. When they get home a cup of tea or bouillon is awaiting them, over which they discuss the events of the eve, and with hearts more tender and warm for these share in the beautiful festival, they go to bed in the early hours of Christmas Day. It has been a time of many prayers and much merriment.”