When my friend Pam asked me to write a post about Polish Christmas Traditions I really did not know where to start. There are so many of them, many more then I can remember since Christmas is a Polish national holiday celebrated since it became Catholic in 966. There are family traditions, regional traditions and polish traditions that have been around for over a thousand years. The only way I could narrow it down was to make a top 5 list.
Kulig (coo lee gh) or a sleigh ride party is a winter tradition celebrated during Carnival time from Christmas till Ash Wednesday . The tradition dates back the time when Polish Nobles would travel form manor to manor celebrating. Each host throwing a feast worthy of the best wedding. Imagine bar hopping Polish Aristocracy style, or if it helps you imagine your old Russian Dames clad in fur traveling at night in a horse drawn carriage and feasting from house to house and spreading Holiday wishes. In modern times Kulig could refer to a party pulled by a tractor or car but always with lots of signing, merriment, bonfire and good spirits to keep you warm.
4. SWIETY MIKOLAJ (St. Nick)
Though as important as Santa Claus himself Saint Nick is not originally a Polish hero but Nicholas of Myrna, a 4th century Greek Bishop of Myrna who because of his numerous miracles and generous gift giving became the original Santa Claus. He had a reputation of secret gift giving by placing coins in shoes of strangers. The celebration of Saint Nicholas is on December 6 when children receive their present. For more about Swiety Mikolaj click here, and for Saint Nick traditions around the world click here.
American kids have Halloween and Polish kids have Christmas. This is the time when we dress up and walk from house to house asking for things. That is where the similarities end. We don’t dress up as scary or cute things but instead as Shepherds, Angels, Wiseman or anyone else you may find in the nativity scene. We don’t carry pumpkins but a Star of Bethlehem. Yes you may find Grim Reaper (Death) with a Scythe in our group but he is only there to remind you of how fragile life is. We walk from home to home wishing best wishes for New Year and singing Christmas Carols. Some wear more elaborate suits while others do not, but none will receive a coin (instead of candy) unless they sing.
During this time the Parish Priest will visit his Parishioners to wish them Happy New Year and to inquire about the household. It is the time to bring out and polish large crosses that they can be in plain view and be prepared to explain some of our “modern” ways. He is often accompanied with a altar boy with a bell and will bless your household before leaving. He will however give you a heads up about his visit just in case you need to plan a vacation or appointment during that time.
2. SZOPKA (JASELKA)
Szopka (Shop Ka) or a Nativity Scene comes in numerous shapes and sizes. It can be purchased as paper cardboard pop up and displayed under the Christmas tree or be very large. elaborate and even mechanical. The most ornate ones come from my home town of Krakow, which on the beginning of December hosts a Szopka Competition.
The Krakow’s Szopka are spectacular, very colorful and sparkly often depicting city’s landmarks and characters (HERE are the photos of this year’s competition held on Dec. 1) Even though the competition last only one day the Szopka are on display in the local art museum till the end of February.
These are not the only Nativity Scenes around, almost every church in the city makes their own detailed Szopka. They are huge, usually taking over one of the side chapels. They can be mechanical or if not the is often Christmas music played in the background. I remember as a child spending each Christmas season walking for church to church and comparing them with my friends.
Then there are Jaselka, a tradition that started by Saint Francis of Assisi and made popular by Franciscan Monks. They are theatrical stories about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and King Herold. Originally they were shown in churches only but since they included some ordinary life and language they have been moved to secular places like schools or clubs. In a picture above kindergarten kids from Piaseczno perform Jaselka to family, friends and community.
Wigilia and December 24th is the most important day of Christmas in Poland. In the morning when mother puts finishing touches on the meatless feast the children decorate the Christmas Tree. The tree traditionally was adorned with apples and reminded us of story of Adam and Eve and their fall of grace. Now the apples have been replaced by ornaments (Poland makes the best hand blown ornaments in the world) and topped with a star. Sorry no Angels the Star Represents the Star of Bethlehem. There are gifts under the Christmas tree but they are from an Angel and are opened after the feast.
The table is adored with white cloth, symbol of the cloth Jesus was wrapped in, and a piece of straw is placed underneath. When the plates are placed on the table the host always includes an extra setting and a chair for a wanderer or a lost family member.
So if you find yourself hungry or bored on Dec 24 knock on the door of a Polish friend and you will certainly find a seat waiting for you. You must however like the 12 dish meal (which is a post in itself) that consists of fish (mostly Carp and Trout), Sauerkraut, Dried Mushrooms and Fruit, Nuts and Poppy Seeds. The traditions are very old the food used was something that was easily obtained during winter time liked dried mushrooms which after soaking can make incredible Mushroom Soup, Sauerkraut and Mushroom Piergi and Uszka filling as well as sauce. Most families serve Barszcz (Beet Soup) with little mushroom stuffed dumplings called Uszka (little ears, Italians have orecchiette pasta). I have been told that what soup you serve depends on where your family comes from Mushroom means it came from the west (Germany) and Barszcz means from the east (Russia). My family always served both so I guess I’m a mix.
There are a lot of traditional Christmas food variations between the regions. In my family and with many families in Krakow it is a custom to serve Jewish Style Carp. It is a Carp that has been boiled with aromatics, served in its own aspic (a la gefilte fish but whole) and adored with almonds and raisins. It is an acquired taste but believe me after years of “just try it you will like it” you expect and wait for it all year long.
The word “Wigilia” comes from Latin word vigilia meaning an occasion for devotional watching, since the feasting traditionally begins once the first evening star appears in the sky. Christmas is often referred to as “Gwiazdka” or little star, and symbol of Star of Bethlehem that lead the Three Wise Men (Magi) to Jesus. This is the time when the candles and Christmas tree are lit for the first time, traditionally.
With the First Star the family says a prayer for souls of lost ones who are believed to participate in the feast. The family members then share Oplatek or a Christmas Wafer and offer each other best wishes for the upcoming year. Oplatek symbolizes unity and reminds us to share our last piece of bread with others. They are very thin and similar in composition to a Host during a traditional Catholic mass but lack sanctification by a priest or pope.
It is finally time to sit, eat and be merry. When the feast is over Poles traditionally sing more Koledy and prepare themselves for Pasterka (literal translation Shepherd’s Mass) or Midnight mass. However it is not just a mass it is filled with music, songs and decorations.
So there, Polish Christmas Traditions in a nutshell, yes nutshell, for more you will have to pack your bags and see for yourself and Merry Christmas.
Note: Since I am unable to use some of the Polish letters not available in the English language some names have been simplified to fit the English keyboard.