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The Polish Christmas Tradition

by Salomea Nosal

There are a lot of Polish customs and beliefs that we only know from descriptions. Still a lot of them are observed today. And despite the passage of time and political turmoils in Poland, they keep their freshness and are a part of contemporary Polish culture. Some of them are connected with religious beliefs; others have deep folk roots; and still others, combine both religious and folk elements.

The richest in traditional observances is the Christmas season. It begins with the Advent and lasts until the Feast of the Three Kings. The Advent itself begins four Sundays before Christmas. This is a time for the spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ. For that reason, the early morning Mass, the Roraty, is said. It is held before dawn to symbolize the darkness of the world and the birth of Christ--the Light of mankind. Also, as a reminder that Christmas is approaching, a special candle--Roratna Swieca--is lit on the altar. The lighting of the candle is a very old custom which was begun during the reign of Boleslaw Wstydliwy (1226-1279). Still today in Poland, many people attend the Roraty, especially in villages. There, the attachment to tradition is much greater than in towns. According to the Church law, Advent is a period of fasting and mourning. There are, however, exceptions for a few feasts; they are Andrzejki, Baborka, and Mikolaj.

Andrzejki are observed on the eve of St. Andrew's Day (November 29). It is an old, folk custom of fortune telling and it is also a name of balls and private parties. One of the augers is the shifting of shoes. Girls take off their left shoes, and arrange them straight from a wall to door. A girl, whose shoe first crosses a door sill will marry soon. Meantime, the boys throw needles into a pot full of water. The direction to which the needle points foretells the direction to look for a girl. If the needle sinks, the dream will not come true. The most popular, however, is foretelling from the melted wax. In a small bowl, a piece of wax is melted, and then poured through the ear of the big old door key into a bowl filled with cold water. After cooking, the wax is transformed into a shape which is a flat mass on one side and very irregular on the other. Then, it is placed between a candle's flame and a wall. The picture created by the shadow shows all kinds of figures, and one can expect what may happen soon. A coach foretells a wedding; a car - travel; flowers - guest, etc.

Shortly aft the Andrejki, on December 4, Baborka is celebrated. Baborka means Barbara in the Silesian dialect. St. Barbara, already in the 14th century, was the patron saint of miners, raftsmen, artillerymen, and was a protectress against lightning and sudden death. The most famous Polish Barbaras are the two queens--Barbara Zapolya (1495-1515), first wife of Sigismund I, and Barbara Radziwilowna (1520-1551), the second wife of Zigismund August. Today, St. Barbara is especially remembered by miners. They pray to her every time they step down deep under the earth. On St. Barbara's Day, the Baborki balls are organized all over Poland, especially solemn in the Silesia region. There, the miners in their festive uniforms take part in celebration and dancing.

Two days after the Baborka, on December 6, is the Mikolaj, St. Nicholas feast. A long time ago it was a pastoral feast...and was also used for protection against wild animals, especially wolves. In Poland, St. Nicholas began to be praised under the influence of the West as well as East. He was the patron saint of Bari, the native city of the Polish Queen Bona (1494-1557), the second wife of Sigismund I; he was also a popular saint of the Netherlands and one of the most worshiped saints of the Orthodox rite. Already in the 17th century, on the St. Nicholas night, children were given small gifts--apples, nuts, ginger snaps. Today, as then, these gifts are placed under the child's pillow, and as a reminder that a child should be obedient, a small, golden painted rod is attached to it. As in the U.S., children wait for Santa Claus and the gifts he brings on Christmas Day. In Poland, children wait for Mikolaj to bring them some goodies, too. Very often, at the parties organized for children, the Mikolaj himself distributes the gifts. But before he gives any gifts away, he asks a child to say a prayer, to make a sign of the cross, or to recite a part of the catechism.

After the St. Nicholas feast, the remaining days of the Advent are devoted to the preparations for the holidays. So, the organist comes to a house with the wafer--Oplatek, for which he is given a small amount of money; farmers marinate hams and smoke kielbasa while their wives clean the house from the attic to the basement, and children make the Christmas ornaments. Everyone is awaiting the Christmas holidays, which are still solemnly celebrated in Poland. But first comes the Christmas Eve.

The Wigilia (from Latin vigilare - to await) is the Polish name for the day before Christmas Day. There is a lot of work to be done on that day. Cooking, baking, and all the housework is done, so the two holidays that follow are devoted to praying, caroling, eating, relaxing, and eventually visiting. This day in particular is associated with several beliefs and customs.

It is still strongly believed that whatever happens on the Wigilia has an impact on the following year. So, if a quarrel should arise, it foretells a quarrelsome and troublesome year. If, in the morning the first visiting person is a man, it means good luck, if a woman, one might expect misfortune. Everyone, however, is glad when a mailman comes by, for it means money and success in the future. To assure good luck and keep evil outside, a branch of mistletoe is hung above the front door threshold. Finally, old grudges should stop. If, for some reason, you did not speak with your neighbor, now is the time to forget old ill feelings and exchange good wishes.

Traditionally, the Christmas tree is decorated on the Wigilia day--quite an event for children. The custom of having a Christmas tree was first introduced in Alsace at the end of the 15th century, and three centuries later, it was common around the world. Early on, the tree was decorated with apples to commemorate the forbidden fruit--the apple of paradise. Today, the Christmas tree is decorated with apples, oranges, candies and small chocolates wrapped in colorful paper, nuts wrapped in aluminum foil, hand blown glass ornaments, candles or lights, thin strips of clear paper (angel's hair), and home made paper chains. The latter, however, has become rarer, as commercially made, aluminum foil chains are being sold.

When the first star appears in the sky, the Christmas tree is lit and the dinner begins. The Christmas Eve dinner begins with a prayer, the sharing of the blessed Oplatek (consecrated bread wafer which is similar to that used during holy communion in the Roman Catholic Church), and exchanging wishes. The sharing and breaking of the wafer is the most important ceremony of the evening. Usually, the male head of the household takes the wafer first and turns to his wife extending it toward her. He wishes her good health and success in the upcoming year, the fulfillment of her dreams and, if there was misunderstanding, asks her for forgiveness and, for the year to come to be a better one. The wife then thanks him and breaks off half of the wafer and eats a piece of it. Then, she offers the wafer to her husband, expressing similar wishes. He breaks the wafer and eats it. This ceremony, then is repeated with each person present, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest.

After the breaking of the wafer and an exchanging of wishes, everyone sits down at the dinner table. The table is covered with the white tablecloth and there is one additional place set for an unexpected guest, who, especially that night, should not be turned away. This is to remind ourselves that St. Joseph and Mary were looking for a shelter, too. The Wigilia, until the first star appears, is a day of fasting and although there are plenty of dishes on the table, traditionally, this is a meatless dinner. It consists of: several soups (red beet with mushroom pockets, fermented rye, fish, dry mushroom), fish (fried, jellied, in sweet sauce, in beer-almond-ginger sauce, staffed), sauerkraut with beans, pierogi stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage, noodles with poppy seeds and honey, sweet strudel and a compote made with dried fruit. It should be pointed out that, today, in Poland, no one imagines the Wigilia dinner without fish--carp in particular, just as no one in the U.S. imagines Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey.

Time after dinner is devoted to different types of activities. It is customary to feed the domestic animals with the Oplatek and dinner leftovers; especially cows to assure plenty of milk. Girls listen to hear from which direction a dog barks because, as the saying goes, it is from that direction her prospective husband would come. Children and teenagers go to the orchard and beat fruit trees with small branches, so there will be plenty of fruit next year. Old stories are told and carols are sung. This goes on until it is time to attend the midnight Mass. In Polish it is called Pasterka, the Mass of the Shepherd, to commemorate that the shepherds were the first to greet the newborn baby Jesus.

There is something magical on your way to the midnight Mass. Stars are shining, bells are ringing, the snow crunches and whitens the way, the riding sleighs are heard, and one can almost hear the angels singing "Silent Night, Holy Night."

After the Mass, people go home and have a glass of hot compote and a piece of cake.

The Christmas Day, called the first holiday by the Poles, is spent with family at home. There is no visiting, no cleaning, no cooking on that day, only previously cooked food is heated. This is the day of enjoyment, for Jesus was born. On Christmas Day, people start to observe the weather very closely. It is believed that each day foretells the weather for the certain month of next year. For example, Christmas Day for January, the St. Stephen's Day for February, etc.

St. Stephen's Day is known as the second holiday. This is a day for visiting and expressing Christmas greetings. And when night begins to fall, you can hear stamping and jingling, and then Christmas carol singing outside. These are carolers--Herody, who began their wandering from home to home. Herody is a popular form of caroling and this is a live performance usually, done by twelve young boys. Dressed in special costumes they are: King Herod, field marshal, a knight, a soldier, an angel, a devil, death, a Jew, Mary, shepherds, sometimes Three Kings and an accordionist. They sing pastoral songs, carols, and when let into the house, play scenes from King Herod's life. Oration and songs vary and depend on to whom they are addressed--to the owner of the house, to a young girl about to be married, to a widow, etc. At the conclusion, they are offered refreshments and some money. No less popular is caroling with a creche--Szopka--and with a star. Usually, those are carried by three caroling teenagers. They too are given some money.

I remember, some twenty years ago, caroling began on St. Stephen's Day and lasted until February 2, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mother. Today it lasts until January 6, the Feast of Three Kings, saying then, goodbye to a merry season. Afterwards, customs and beliefs somehow tend to be different. But we will talk about those after the holidays.

And for now, Merry Christmas!

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