Polonizing Polonia’s Christmas
by Robert Strybel
Here are some things to remember about Polish-style Christmas traditions, intertwined with a few practical suggestions on how to incorporate them:
- Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. More frequent prayer, attending Roraty (Advent Morning Mass) if
available in your area and doing good deeds for the needy are all ways to prepare. It is also the time Pol-Am parishes and clubs hold pierogi sales, fish fries, herring suppers and oplatek dinners as well as Christmas bazaars
and bake sales allowing people to stock up for Wigilia.
- Introducing the kindly old bishop Saint Nicholas (Swiety Mikolaj) to your parish, club or family is a good way to remind
youngsters that the real St. Nick is neither an elf from the North Pole nor an advertising agent for Coca-Cola, but a symbol of anonymous altruism, especially towards those in need. And, Swiety Mikolaj does not hog the holiday
highlight but comes mainly on his feastday (Dec. 6) and keeps Christ in Christmas.
- The good-deed game is another way of reminding youngsters that Christmas should mean being kind to others rather than
being preoccupied with “getting presents.” In the “hay of good deeds” (sianko dobrych uczynków), a youngster places one blade of hay in the manger each time during Advent he does something good (says his
prayers, cleans his room, helps someone, gives something to a needy person, etc.). The more blades of hay in the manger, the softer will be Baby Jesus’ bed.
- When sending Christmas cards, whether printed in Polish or English, be sure to add a Polish personal touch by penning in
a few words of your own such as:Zyczymy Wam radosnych Swiat i obfitych lask Bozych w Nowym upcoming (year, e.g., 2001) Roku. Also, add a piece of oplatek, breaking off and eating a corner of it before sealing the envelope. That
symbolizes sharing the “bread of love” over the miles.
- Introduce your family or community group to traditions (customs, foods, crafts, lore, etc.) you may have heard of, read
about or seen practiced by others. You can read up on them in such books as: “A Polish Christmas Eve,” an illustrated 274-page book by Rev. Czeslaw Krysa. This book provides step-by-step instructions on Christmas
crafts as well as wealth of information on the traditions, symbols, recipes and practices of our Polish Christmas heritage. Also included are heart-warming real-life Polish Christmas reminiscences from both sides of the
- The 11 best-known Polish koledy (carols) are probably Wsrod nocnej ciszy (In the Still of the Night), Dzisiaj w Betlejem
(In Bethlehem Today), Przybiezeli do Betlejem (Quickly on to Bethlehem), Pojdzmy wszyscy do stajenki (Let Us Hasten to the Stable), Gdy sie Chrystus rodzi (When Christ is Born), W Zlobie lezy (He Lies in a Manger), Sliczna
Panienka (Fairest Maiden), Medrcy swiata (Wisemen of the World), Bog sie rodzi (God is Born), Aniol pasterzom mówil (Shepherds Heard an Angel Say), Lulajze, Jezuniu (Lullaby, Little Jesus)
- Family or club craft projects that involve making a Christmas crib, caroling star, traditional tree ornaments (fashioned
from paper, straw, oplatek, egg-shells, feathers, pine cones, etc.) or wycinanki (paper cuttings) may be a better alternative to staying glued to the TV or computer screen and buying all your decorations in a store.
- A Polish Christmas presentation could encompass every imaginable facet of our holiday heritage. This time of year clubs,
community groups, schools and individual teachers are on the look-out for those who can give interesting Yule-related talks or demonstrate Christmas crafts, food preparation and various customs. Look around and you may find
such opportunities in your community. Rather than keeping it hidden, let’s share our beautiful heritage with others.
- Typical Wigilia foods include: clear beetroot soup with tiny, ear-shaped mushroom-filled dumplings,mushroom soup with
noodles squares, herring in oil or sour cream, floured, breaded or battered fish fried in oil, pierogi filled with sauerkraut & mushrooms, sauerkraut with mushrooms, whole yellow dried peas or noodles, noodles with
poppyseeds, cooked wheat with honey and poppyseed, rice & apple casserole, buckwheat pancakes with preserves and kompot, a dried fruit stew.
- The oplatek-dinner—also called Vigil Supper, Wigila or Polish Christmas Eve Party—is a community get-together
usually held in a hall a week or so before Christmas Eve. This is a good way to introduce the uninitiated to our beautiful Wigilia heritage, especially if the organizers make an effort to do things up right in accordance with
tradition. The event may also include a Polish Christmas pageant and/or a Christmas bazaar. (details below). To uphold the tradition of an extra place at the table for a wayward traveler or lonely stranger, why not invite
several people from a nursing home, homeless shelter or those living alone who could not afford the price of the admission ticket. Or, kick things up a notch and go all the way (see following entry).
- Wigilia supper for the needy, widely held throughout today’s Poland, is a practice our Polonia might do well to
emulate. Unlike the typical oplatek-dinners, attended for cultural self-enrichment by those who can afford it, Christmas Eve suppers for the needy are for the poor, homeless, orphaned and lonely—all those deprived of
family warmth at Christmas time. Food donated by parishioners, club members and local merchants plus volunteer labor to put it all together could turn this project into a beautiful act of Christmas sharing.
- Explaining what it’s all about is important at Polish-style Christmas festivities, since those of non-Polish
background often marry into Polonian families, and those versed in their Polish heritage often mingle with Pol-Ams who have drifted away. At organized Polish community events, the officiating clergyman or emcee should briefly
describe the customs, symbols and foods or a printed program can be used for that purpose.
- Hay is scattered beneath the table-cloth for Wigilia supper in memory of the Christ Child’s humble birth; in
peasant cottages straw was once strewn on the floor and sheaves of grain were placed in the corners of the room. If hay is not available at your parish or Polish import or specialty shop, try a local feed store. They might not
even charge you for a handful of hay, and that’s all you really need.
- Revive some Christmas traditions your immigrant ancestors may have once upheld but which over the years have fallen by
the wayside. Take time to look up the oldest living ancestor—a great-grandparent, aunt or other elderly family member who may recall what things were like way back when. And, if you don’t ordinarily do so, invite
that person to your Christmas celebration.
- A Christmas food & bake sale is an excellent way of making available the Wigilia and post-Wigilia Christmas foods
most Pol-Ams love but may find too involved and time-consuming to prepare. These are usually prepared by volunteers who donate their time and sometimes the fixings as well. Polish foods are also available from professionals
companies such as:
- Polana, Inc.—traditional Polish food & baked goods (soups, pierogi, golabki, sausage, traditional cakes incl.
makowiec, piernik & sernik) delivered to your doorstep: 3512 N. Kostner Ave, Chicago, IL 60646; phone: (773) 545-4900 or (888) POLANA-1; www.polana.com
- Stawski Distributing Co. of Chicago—leading importer of Polish liquor, beer, mead, etc. If you are unable to get them
in your area, phone: (773) 278-4848.
- The oplatek or Christmas wafer is probably the single most important Polish ritual artifact. In the family circle it is
broken and shared at Christmas Eve supper. Oplatek is also the name of a community get-together featuring the wafer-sharing tradition plus refreshments, koledy signing or a more extensive Christmas program. Oplatek is available
at Polish parishes. If there isn’t one in your area, you can order them from the Polish American Journal at 1 (800) 422-1275.
- A Polish Christmas presence need not exclusively mean organizing a major All-Polish event from scratch. You and your
friends might also consider setting up a Polish booth or renting a table at one of the many Christmas bazaars, craft fairs, bake sales or other events held in community centers, malls and various churches. Such items as
imported Polish tree ornaments, wycinanki, amber and wood carvings not to mention Polish food and baked goods may well turn your stand into one of the event’s major attractions.
- Koledy at the mall, in the town square, at the community center, school, nursing home, etc. is a good way to share to
beauty of Polish carols with the community at large. Where you perform, the size of your group, whether you go in street dress, choir gowns or in the attire of traditional Polish kolędnicy (star-bearer, King Herod, death,
devil, etc.) depends on the availability of costumes and existing local conditions.
- Share Polish Christmas lore with your family and community. It was once believed that on Christmas Eve animals could
speak and the water in wells turned into wine at the stroke of midnight. It was considered bad luck if the first outsider to enter someone’s home on the morning of Christmas Eve was a female. The odd person (7th, 13th,
etc.) joining the Wigilia supper was not expected to live to see another Christmas. Blades of hay from under the table-cloth were believed to foretell a girl’s marriage prospects.
- On St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), the second day of Christmas, worshipers in the countryside would throw oats at each
other and at the priest as a sign of well-wishing; the custom originated to commemorate the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death for his faith.
- St. John’s Day (Dec. 27), traditionally the third day of Christmas, is the day priests bless wine in church. This
might be a good occasion to hold a Polish wine-tasting party with refreshments, community caroling and other attractions. If a clergyman is present, he should first bless the wine and explain the origin of the custom: Enemies
once served St. John the Apostle poisoned wine, but after he blessed it, he could drink it without harm.
- At your Bal Sylwestrowy (New’ Year’s Eve ball), in addition to “Auld Lang Syne” be sure to sing
“Jak szybko mijaja chwile” when you usher in the new millennium. When the orchestra takes a break, it might be a good time to demonstrate the fortune-telling games that were once an important part of New Year
festivities or perhaps have a group of traditional kolednicy on hand to entertain the revelers.
- Keep your Christmas tree and manger up at least till January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings and be sure to inscribe your
doorway with blessed chalk on that day: K + M + B (the current year, e.g., 2011).
Whichever of the above ways you decide on, let’s this year you add at least one genuine Polish tradition to your family and/or community Christmas scene.
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