This week being the week before Christmas, Our Polonia has decided to present to its readers the traditions and customs that have been practiced in Poland for centuries past. It is my hope that some of these mores might be incorporated into American Polonia’s Christmas this year.
For many decades, 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. All is in preparation for the great holy day and holiday of which Christmas Eve has been the most touching.
As the first star of evening brightens in the winter sky on Christmas Eve, each family is gathered together, for it was a star which led the shepherds to “where the young Child was.” Christmas is first of all a family holiday, and it is the duty as well as the pleasure of every member to be at the family table on that day.
It is considered an omen of the greatest ill luck if anyone is absent — some one of the family will die during the coming year. If anyone must be unavoidably away, the mistress of the house invites someone else to take his place.
When the family has assembled, the head of the house takes the holy wafers and breaks one with every member of the family, a solemn ceremony which is accompanied with a general exchange of good wishes. The holy wafers are paper thin, snowy white, and ornamented with holy images. The wafer of Oplatek marks the end of Advent and fasts.
Everything about the Christmas Eve repast is done according to custom. The table is laid with a white cloth, but it does not lie smoothly on the table. Underneath is an uneven layer of straw, a usage which through the centuries has commemorated that fact that Jesus was born in a manger. As the day before Christmas is a fast day, the Christmas Eve supper is awaited with exceptional interest, especially as it consists of from five to eleven courses, according to the means and inclination of the family. The menu is traditional, and practically every Polish household serves the same foods today that were served in their ancestors’ houses for generations.
It must begin with a soup which may be the famous barszcz. In the soup are delicious little patties filled with mushrooms, called ushka because of their ear-like shape. Following the soup come the fish — little fish, big fish, fried, broiled, baked or boiled, usually many courses of them. Vegetables of various sorts accompany the fish, invariably including cabbage. A long stick of rich bread filled with poppy seeds is another traditional dainty, and a compote of dried plums, pears, peaches and cherries is usually served. Bowls of nuts, raisins and fruit follow, with cakes and candies.
At the completion of the meal a bell suddenly rings, and the children are on the moment transfixed with excitement. “The angel has brought us the tree!” they shout, and as the dining room doors are flung open, they rush into the next room, where in a corner is indeed a tree, alight with candles and sparkling with a hundred ornaments. . . Not only are there colored balls and tinseled toys but also gingerbread men, chocolate figures in metal papers, brightly wrapped little cakes, and silvered nuts which prolong the tree’s fascination as small hands pull them off during succeeding days. Under the tree are the presents, which are ostensibly for the children, but which actually include the bigger ones as well.
The tree is usually set at the juncture of two pieces of wood which makes the form of the cross. In certain parts of the country, as near Krakow and Silesia, the tree is suspended from the ceiling.
Carols are sung about the tree, and the gifts are distributed with much merriment. At midnight, those families who do not wait for early mass on Christmas day bundle into warm wraps and go out to attend the Midnight Mass. The churches are crowded, brilliantly lighted, richly decorated with greens, and the singing of the Polish Christmas carols of unusual beauty. The music and words of these carols are of great antiquity and constitute a fine part of the heritage of Polish culture.
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 behind this custom is that oats like the works of St. Szczepan are beneficial to mankind. How-ever, there is also the pagan meaning that the oats are magic means of insuring success, fertility (of farm produce) and wealth.
On December 27th, the day of the Three Kings, young 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 sang carols and accepted 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. As a matter of fact, we owe our present day puppet show to the early manger scenes.
Whether we do or do not practice our native Polonian traditions, let us at least try to keep the spirit of Christmas with us the whole year round. Let us strive to live together in the blessed peace that all humans firmly attest to at Christmas time, 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 . . .