How American Polonia Celebrates Christmas

by Robert Strybel

Our Polonia celebrates Christmas in a variety of ways. Since this is the age of globalization and networking, the experiences of one community may contain some hints and ideas for Polonian groups in other parts of the country. Let me share with some of the activities of my native Detroit area, starting with a place close to this author’s heart: Polonia’s Orchard Lake Schools. That beautiful lakeside campus comprising three distinct but culturally linked educational institutions is a place former Kraków Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) once called “serce Polonii” (“the heart of Polonia”).

Here then is a glimpse of the Christmas program presented at Orchard Lake’s Shrine-Chapel. An organ prelude precede the traditional lighting of the altar’s Christmas trees by the schools’ Chancellor, Father Timothy Whalen. The program included three koledy by the folk-costumed Galicja. St Mary’s Song & Dance Ensemble, directed by Michal Królewski, followed by choir director Wladyslaw Budweil leading the Filarets and Queen of Apostles Parish Combined Choruses.

After the musical program, the audience retired to the dining hall for a true feast laid out buffet style. Oplatek was distributed as guests entered the hall and Christmas greetings were exchanged. “The night air was crisp and cold, but hearts were warm with joy toward the present company and hope for the future,” a local Polish American reporter noted.

Just as Orchard Lake is in a class by itself, the Friends of Polish Art are probably doing more than any other group to keep the flag of Polish heritage flying over Greater Detroit. Here are a few glimpses of the Wigilia the group held at the elegant suburban American-Polish Cultural Center in Troy, Michigan, last December. Father Gary Michalik blessed the opłatek which was shared by all those in attendance. The supper was the traditional meatless Christmas Eve meal that included a hearty mushroom soup with noodles, herring in cream sauce, fried mushrooms and fried perch with dialed and parslied potatoes. There were also pierogi as well as sauerkraut & mushrooms, followed with fruit compote and almond or poppyseed roll for desert.

A puppet show entitled “The Night the Animals Talked” was presented by master puppeteer Susan Ostrowski, and a kolędy sing-along followed. A Polish Christmas kiermasz (bazaar) allowed guests to browse and stock up on books, toys and decorations. There was a raffle drawing and table prizes. I am happy to count many of those who put on this beautiful event among my long-standing friends and associates, including mistress of ceremonies Marcia Lewandowska, who explained the significance of all the traditions to the guests. Also contributing the Wigilia’s success were Mary Ellen Tyszka, Helen Gordon, Leonard Skowroński and Gregory Biestek.

South of the Michigan border, about 50 people gathered at the Dash Inn Restaurant for the annual Wigilia Dinner of Polish National Alliance White Eagle Lodge 3149 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Each place setting was decorated with three sprigs of wheat bound by a colorful ribbon symbolizing the unity of the Blessed Trinity. A special crystal bell resounded seven times to commemorate each of the recently deceased lodge members, for whom the empty place at table had been set. The meatless dinner consisted of salad, fish chowder, baked fish, pierogi, kapusta, several vegetables and sernik for desert. An important part of the program was conducted by Lodge President Stanley Podzieliński who explained the ritual sharing of oplatek, the sheaves of grain in the four corners of the banquet room, the significance of hay and straw and other Polish Christmas customs and beliefs. Since the event was held on December 5th (the eve of St Nicholas Day), the real Swiety Mikolaj, not Santa Claus, made a surprise appearance.

The above example illustrates of how Polish traditions can be creatively adapted. This author has never personally encountered bell ringing in honor of departed members, but must admit that it truly reflects the spirit of the occasion. Explaining the significance of individual customs is also highly recommended in a multi-cultural American setting.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one can occasionally encounter so-called “Oplatek Dinners” at which chicken, pork chops and sausage are served, few if any ethnic customs are practiced or explained, and the evening’s main attractions are a cash bar and polka dancing. Often the only difference from the run-of-the-mill Saturday-night dances—held at other times of year—are gaudy decorations desecrating the premises. If you are in charge of one of these events, make a move toward the authentic with some real Polish customs—oplatek sharing, the singing of koledy or serving traditional foods will be a good start.

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