Christmas In Poland
The forty-five day period preceding Christmas was one of quiet waiting, spent in prayer and fast. Song, laughter and music were silenced. Farm girls gathered at the spinning wheels. At the end of November, on St. Catherine’s and St. Andrew’s Eve, the young people foretold their future with noise and hilarity, but after that began the daily prayers and masses just before sunset, with a brightly lighted seven-branched candelabra on the church altar. The coming of Christ is heralded by the Holy Wafer or Oplatek. These wafers are baked at convents or churches. Often they have very artistic metal imprints on them. During Christmas Eve festivities, at the appearance of the first star, family and friends share bits of the wafer, kiss and wish each other good health, luck and cheer. The appearance of the wafer marks the end of Advent and fasts.
Holiday feasts date back to Slavonic Pagan days, and are also connected with the honoring of the dead. It was the custom in Poland to set places for the absent ones, whether dead or away from home. One of the customs, both in the home of peasant and nobleman alike, was the placing of stacks of grain in the four corners of the dining room, placing of hay under the tablecloth (believed to be in commemoration of the manger in the stable where the child, Jesus, lay, but probably dates from pagan time in celebration of some farm holiday and later given Christian meaning), and the sharing of the wafer across the table. Christmas Eve traditionally has always been the most touching and brotherly Polish holiday celebration.
Animals participated in Christmas Eve celebrations. The left-overs were taken out to the castle and horses, a tradition carried out to this day. It was believed that those animals who ate this food could not be harmed by witches. Grains which had been strewn on the dining room table were fed to the chickens for better egg laying. The cows and horses also shared the Holy Wafer by eating crumbs of it. The wolf and birds were invited. Food was thrown out into the yard for the wolf, so that he would stay away for the entire year. In some localities everybody was invited, nobody must be left out, the feast was shared with all. On this day all nature celebrated in general joyousness. In bygone days it was believed that on Christmas Eve animals speak, that water changes to wine and that the heavens open to midnight and those who are worthy are permitted to see what is there.
Fish is served on Christmas Eve and the shepherds sing carols in front of the house. There is a holiday atmosphere of peace, gaiety and heavenly harmony. Old grievances disappear; the quarreling make peace with one another. To the Pole on foreign soil, the Holy Wafer is a messenger from home, symbolized crumbs of bread from the Angels sent from the Motherland. Then Christmas Eve festivities take on the quality of a communion of spirits in which loneliness and a mystic and invisible hope turn the thoughts of refugees to home shores. In the wealthier household at “Wigilia” time, borszcz is served with cheese, prune, cabbage, etc., dumplings or pierogi, fish soup, mushrooms in kraut, and a variety of fish. For dessert there were cakes with poppy seeds and various fruit dishes.
After Christmas Eve festivities, the trees in the orchard are tied with the stalks from the dining room so that they will yield more fruit. These stalks are regarded as holy and are never thrown out. Around midnight, after their hearty meal, the people go in groups, in uplifted mood, to attend midnight mass. The church bells ring out through the whole countryside, calling all to gather. There they sing carols as Christmas Day in heralded in. Tired and happy, they return to their homes to sleep until Christmas morn.
Christmas Eve always has been a day of forecasts. The host counts the blades pulled out of the stalks and foretells his future crops. With the straws from under the tablecloth, the farm boys and girls predict their wedding dates. Long straws mean an early marriage, dried ones that a whole year must be waited, those extremely dry foretell bachelor of spinsterhood.
The custom of arranging a Christmas tree first appeared in Poland in the 9th century, and had been taken over from the Germans in Polish Prussia. They were trimmed with golden Italian nuts, candy, apples and numerous colored candles. Sometimes a manger of waxed figures is arranged among the branches, the Holy Child lying in his manger with the Blessed Mary and St. Joseph looking on tenderly, an ox and donkey whiffing over Him, shepherds hurrying toward Him and angels flying down, and the whole scene brightly lit up.
It is said that St. Francis, with papal permission, originated the idea of arranging the Holy Manger, gathered the oxen, people and Monastic Brothers about it and to the sounds of choral singing chanted mass in honor of the Child Jesus. This simple form became more decoratively enlarged upon, inspired by people’s imaginations more personages began to appear. More dramatic music compositions were added. At first these festivities took place in the church, but as they grew in scope, they were withdrawn and arranged in separate places. Only remnants of purely Polish customs in this ritual remain, and they are preserved in Carol Cantatas, in the form of dialogues, usually enacted by school boys. These cantatas, portrayed the life and customs of the lowly peasant as he philosophized with himself before ceremoniously greeting the Holy Child. In going from house to house singing carols, gifts and offerings were picked up. This probably had its beginning in the collection taken by priests who came to the home of peasant and landowner alike. Household servants were given gifts by their master.
On December 26th, the day after Christmas or St. Szczepan’s Day, it was the custom to throw blessed oats at one another, usually in church or in front of it after mass. the idea in back of this custom is that oats like the works of St. Szczepan are beneficial to mankind. However, there is also the explaining of this custom as a pagan one in the guise of a magic means of insuring success, fertility of farm produce and wealth.
On December 27th, the day of the Three Kings, boys went from house to house with a large paper star shaped lantern shining with an inner light, which represented the star that led the three kings to the stable in Bethlehem. Carols were sung and good wishes extended to the host, after which the host treated the good wishers to a snack. In many localities it was and still is a Christmas Eve custom to masquerade as animals and visit neighborhood homes, during which time the improvised actors sing carols and accept gifts. Some churches forbade these masquerades in the middle ages, no doubt regarding them as pagan in origin. Often too, the visitors would become boisterous and get out of hand. The boys dressed as bears, wolves, goats and a great creature called a “turon” with a wooden head, who moved his jaws with a clanking sound. These masquerades and visits continued for a week.
We owe our present day puppet show to the early manger scenes. The singing of carols and the manger scenes arranged to illustrate these carols, with more and more figures appearing to express their devotion to the Christ Child, took on a layman quality. The holy ritual slowly evolved into pleasant theatricals. When the figures were given mobility for more vivid presentation, in keeping with the humor of the carol scenes, the manger had become a miniature theater and thus started our puppet show of today.
Let us keep the Spirit of Christmas with us the whole year round. Let us strive to live together in the Blessed Peace all humans firmly attest to at Christmastime, so that we can Prosper and Share the Joys and Sorrows in a quiet, contented, constructive Way of Life!!!
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .