Christmas and New Year’s Traditions
By Edward Wilczynski
‘Imagine yourself to be in a Polish city on the afternoon of December 24th in the 1970’s…. As dusk approaches, the frantically busy streets are suddenly empty of all people except those few who must work in some essential service — police, bus drivers, health service personnel, etc. One feels an almost enchanted expectation as the blue-gray darkness descends and slowly the city and house lights are turned on — a few at a time.
This quiet moment permits you to think of the mosaic of beautiful Christmas traditions which are followed in Poland, and to a lesser degree, in the far-flung Polonia. Christmas traditions are not monolithic — each part of Poland has some which are typical only of that region. However, there are many which might be considered quite widespread.
Beloved St. Nicholas has been busy since December 6th delivering gifts to the younger children — sometimes appearing in the city streets in a “dorozka,” in department stores, in nursery schools, and in private homes. When St. Nicholas delivers presents, he usually inquired about the child’s home and school behavior, and if he comes to the home, he may even ask the child to repeat the Lord’s Prayer!
Large evergreen trees have been bedecked with lights and decorations, and stand in city squares, shopping centers, and near old town halls. Blessed wafers (Oplatki) have been obtained at the church. Christmas cards have been sent – often with part of an oplatek as a symbol of unity with loved ones. Even adults have purchased practical small gifts for each other to put under the Christmas tree “na Gwiazdke” for Christmas.
A week or two before this great holiday, the shops with food are flooded with feverish activity — live fish, hams, sausages and meats are eagerly purchased; bakeries and confectionaries accept orders for tortes, “babkas” and holiday cakes. Housewives buy additional supplies of flour, sugar, nuts, raisins, candied fruit, and chocolate for baking at home; oranges, bananas, figs and almonds are available as never before. The aroma of home baking is indescribably delicious!
Christmas Eve is a time for the family to be together. Tradition has it that the Christmas Eve supper starts with the appearance of the first star. If there is an absent member of the family who cannot join his loved ones, his place is set at the table nonetheless. Often extra places are set in honor of those relatives who have long since emigrated to America and other countries. In years gone by, the father of the household would momentarily step out into the street to see if there was someone there who was far from his home, so as to invite him to share in the Christmas Eve supper, and ensure that no one would be far from hearth — even if it is not his own.
The Christmas Eve supper, lighted by candles, is set on a tablecloth under which is placed a little straw or hay — in memory of the Christ Child’s birth. The host and hostess break a wafer and wish each other happiness and peace, and then repeat this with all those present at this supper. Traditionally, there is an uneven number of courses. The meatless tradition is maintained. In rural areas, people share something from their Christmas supper, often a colored oplatek, with the farm animals — as tradition has it that they have the gift of speech on this night. City dwellers share with their pets, or put food on windowsills for the birds. Christmas carols are sung, and everyone gathers around the lighted Christmas tree — which in many households is illuminated with small candles. Under the tree are gifts, some of which had been left by St. Nicholas when he was making his rounds.
Now, it is time to hurry off to church for the Midnight Mass, the “Pasterka.” People call out greetings to their friends and neighbors who are bundled in many layers of clothing against the bitter cold of the Polish winter. There can’t possibly be enough pews for the enormous crowds, so children stand in front, and teenagers and able-bodied adults stand in the back of the church.
On Christmas Day, the pace is a more leisurely one. People visit their relatives, often bursting into carols as they approach their prospective host’s door. Usually, dignified adults even bang together pot lids while caroling! Children gather in small groups to go “a-caroling,” and the more energetic ones have previously assembled a “szopka” – a creche – and puppet characters which act out the story of Christmas, often with embellishments. These children are, of course, given little treats or even gifts for their efforts. The lady of the house usually does very little cooking on this day, except for brewing tea and possibly roasted meats for family and guests who drop in.
In some rural areas of Poland, the evening of December 25th is dedicated to young bachelors. They assemble, practice singing a few carols, and then go from household to household where there are eligible young ladies, and entertain them. After they finish, the young lady is expected to spread the table with dishes of roasted meat, sausages, ham and cakes, which are washed down with a favorite Polish liquor. With the merry-making, sometimes the bachelors make their last visits well after midnight.
The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, is also a holiday and, except for the essential services, no one goes to work. On this day, people visit their friends’ homes, either as invited guests or simply drop in. The main dish for meals on this day is often Hunter’s Stew (“Bigos”) which includes sauerkraut and leftover meats and sausages. The scene in the mountains is particularly colorful on December 26th. The Gorale (mountaineers) ride in their sleighs, dressed in full regalia, with their singing accompanied by music on the violin to visit their friends. That sight alone is worth a trip to the Tatra mountains.
For next few weeks, the churches present programs which are called “jaselka,” in which children sing carols, and the story of the birth of Christ is presented in dramatic form. Artistis who have been constructing large and elaborate “szopki” are able to display them in exhibition halls in the larger cities. Many take their inspiration from the Marian church in Krakow and the altar by Wit Stwosz. Contests are conducted to select the most beautiful ones, but they are all such gorgeous creations that the judge’s task must be a difficult one.
New Year’s Eve, is celebrated either by attending a lovely ball (that of the Warsaw Philharmonic is considered particularly glamorous) or by attending a party in a private home. The parties at home usually feature a buffet supper, which frequently has bigos as the main dish, cold meats, stuffed carp, torte and cakes for dessert. Champagne is a favorite drink for greeting the New Year. At midnight everyone wishes everyone else a Happy New Year. Balloons are sold in the city streets, and these are purchased by people on their way home.
These holidays are followed by a season of merry-making called “karnawal” which lasts until the beginning of Lent. Namesday parties are unusually gay, and every possible occasion is utilized for having a masquerade ball. Organizations and institutions have their most lavish balls during “karnawal.” As one walks in the streets during the evening he often hears the sounds of music and happy voices, even through closed windows. Needless to say, this is a radiant season of the year!