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Ghosts of Midnight Masses Past

Stanislaw Smardz, Haverhill, Massachusetts

by Staś Kmieć

Tradition — the content of culture such as customs, ideas, beliefs, ways of thinking, behavior, and standards of conduct, is passed down from generation to generation because of its particular importance and worthiness of preservation to a given community now and for posterity.
In Polish culture there are ways of observing the events and celebrations of the seasons, the family, and of the liturgical year. Our heritage began earlier and is older than the rituals and customs associated with Christianity. Ancestors observed a folk tradition, steeped in practices and magical components, as well as elements of ancient pagan festivals, that was later intertwined with Christian religious beliefs. As a result of this continual process through the generations, a human dimension to Polish Catholicism emerged.

Roman Catholics and Anglicans traditionally celebrate Midnight Mass, which begins at midnight on December 25. This ceremony, which is held in churches throughout the world, marks the beginning of Christmas Day.

In Polish tradition, everything important takes place on Christmas Eve – a day full of celebration, and provides the spiritual and dramatic build-up leading to the anticipated pinnacle – Midnight Mass. Wigilia focuses on the family, while this mass extends the blessings into the community.

CHOIR DIRECTOR Stanisław Smardz at age 92, is still leading the singing of kolędy before Midnight Mass at a merger parish in Haverhill, Massachusetts.


As we celebrate Christmas, many can only internally remember and visualize the “ghosts of Midnight Masses past” – an enchanted period in society when Polish parishes flourished and our ethnic identity within religion was protected. For some, these fond recollections rekindle and continue to keep our heritage alive, if even only in memory.

Pasterka (or Północka, as it is known in regional dialect) is a midnight church mass celebrated between the 24th and 25th of December. A close translation of the name would be “Shepherds’ Mass.” It is a reference to the Biblical shepherds, who were visited by an Angel and informed of the Christ Child’s birth. Although other ethnicities and Americans may still observe Midnight Mass, the emotions, imagery, inner feeling, and sense of community are uniquely different with the Polish.

As the culmination of Wigilia festivities, Pasterka is the most important element of this celebration for those of Polish descent. It is viewed as a wondrous, magical, religious experience — not to be missed. Churches are crowded and many stand through the entire mass.

Preceded and accompanied by communal singing, the mass itself is a joyous and majestic liturgical event. With over 500 recorded carols, Poland is a phenomenon on the world’s scale. Enchanting in melody, folk in origin, and indelible in memory, one of the most beautiful customs of a Polish Midnight Mass is the singing of traditional and beloved Christmas kolędy (carols). Unlike many of the Christmas songs and hymns of the United States and other countries, the kolęda is not only a prayer to God, but it is also a musical drama depicting the wondrous tale of the Nativity.

The church is festively decorated with a larger than usual number of burning candles. Bells are rung, incense burned, under the stained glass and the statue icons’ watch the procession enters and the traditional “Wsród Nocnej Ciszy” (In the silence of the night) is sung.

As a child, I remember visiting my grandparents in Garfield, N.J. After a sumptuous Wigilia dinner followed by camaraderie and play with my cousins, the kids would embark on a caroling spree on route to St. Stanislaus Church. We were a unique troupe because we had a repertoire of Polish kolędy;“Dzisiaj w Betlejem” being our key selection. We would meet our families at the church, and if we were lucky we would be seated; if not we would lean against the walls and resist the temptation for sleep. The church was a sea of poinsettias and meticulously decorated with trees elegantly lit in white and blue, with a manager parade I have not seen since. The priest from Poland would “perform” an animated sermon and after two hours, we were exhilarated and exhausted.

Traditionally families visit the Żłobek (Nativity Crčche) to pray together to the Infant Jesus at the beginning or the end of Mass. Upon the return home, many families perhaps enjoy a toast of Krupnik honey-spice liqueur with wishes and tastes of good cheer. Depending on the congregation, other customs borrowed from folk tradition are enacted.

Ashley Gorczyca
St. Barbara’s Church
Lackawanna, N.Y.

“My favorite memory of a Midnight Mass would be the presence of St. Barbara’s Church on that night. As a child growing up, my mother would dress me and my brothers in our ‘Sunday’s best’ and we would head to church following our Wigilia meal at my grandmother’s. In the church, the smell of pine hit you instantly. Eyes were drawn directly to the main altar with the dazzling lights on the Christmas trees. Poinsettia’s filled both the main and side altars and ushers wore their freshly pressed suits. What could be better than walking into a gorgeous church on one of the most important days of the year, and hearing Polish carols being sung by the choir?
 “My grandfather, Albin Schenck was the sacristan, and I would go to the church to help set up and prepare. It was the anticipation, the hard work of preparation, and then the partaking in this mass that I recall fondly.

“My entire family belonged to this church, on both my mother and father’s sides. My church may be closed and recently demolished, but the memories of Midnight Mass that I have as a child is something that will stay with me forever. I sometimes close my eyes and am taken back to those days at St. Barbara’s.”

St. Barbara's last zlobek. Lackawanna, NY 2007.

THE LAST ZŁOBEK DISPLAY at St. Barbara’s Parish in Lackawanna, N.Y., where parisioners would gather after Midnight Mass to take a piece of straw from the manger and keep it in their wallet or purse so — according to Polish folklore — they would carry wealth with them throughout the year. The church was closed in 2008 and demolished this past Spring.

Folk Tradition in Poland

Gody is the old Polish name for the period from Christmas Eve to Epiphany Eve. In Poland there is a specific character and festive décor that highlights an unusual pastoral atmosphere to this joyous celebration.

Christmas Night — contrary to what the carol states is not quiet, or calm. There is a belief that visiting souls could be cast out of the house through entertainment and merriment, thus expelling them in a ceremonial way – through noise. From all sides gunshots, firecrackers, and banging pots are heard – the louder the better.

It is believed that animals speak in human voice on this special night, while all are at Pasterka. Farmers share special pink opłatki wafers with all farm animals except the horse. Legend notes that the horse rejected to carry the Blessed Mary on his back during her escape from Egypt.

Just before midnight, all set off to the nearest church. Only small children and infirm elders are left at home. Lights are not extinguished, emphasizing the brightness associated with the birth of Christ. In some vicinities fires are burned.

Everyone attempts to arrive at church as soon as possible, as the first is ensured success and good yields of harvest. Vigil carolers once greeted those on their way by strewing oat seeds across their path. Throwing groch (dried yellow peas) from the choir loft before Mass guaranteed a good harvest and prosperity.

Some churches enact the custom of placing the infant figure on the tabernacle covered with tulle. During the initial song, the priest discovers the “child,” shows the congregation, and places it in the manger crib.

Merrymaking festivities continued after Mass, when bachelors visited their neighbors (po podłazach), particularly parents of a future bride. With sacks or pockets full of oats, they sang and extended good wishes, while casting showers of grain around the home. These wishes were spoken in the form of verse: Na szczęście, na zdrowie, na to Boże Narodzenie... żeby się darzyło w komorze, oborze, wszędzie, daj Boże... (For luck, for health, on this Christmas ... that it will be received in the chamber, barns, everywhere, God forbid).

 The head of the house would pull out a fistful of oats and throw it onto the center of the family dining table to ensure a bountiful table, and to display a house of prosperity. Prepared for visitors, the hosts offered food and honey wódka. Should a young man fail to visit a girlfriend’s home, their relationship would be ended. The greater the number of visiting carolers meant the greater fortune for the family.

One of the most interesting places where Midnight Mass takes place is at the salt mine in Wieliczka, near Kraków. The service is 100 meters underground in the Chapel of Saint Kinga.

Ed Mohylowski
St. Anthony’s
Fairfield, Conn.

“Midnight Mass was always the most anticipated event in our parish, and the most well attended of any service. For a child, the prospect of staying up late was very exciting. In order to ensure getting a “good” seat in the church, people would show up as early as 11:00 p.m. to carefully select their seats; they would have come earlier had the church been opened. The organist would play a selection of kolędy and carols and everyone would marvel at the church decorations.

“St. Anthony’s was founded in 1927, but by the 1960s, very little was conducted in Polish ... the occasional sermon, a few hymns, but for Wigilia Mass, things were different... the church was richly decorated with a beautiful żłobek in front of the Marian side altar, and the entire service was conducted in Polish. Sadly, our church had a dreadful choir, with one vocalist, who sang too loud and off-key, but even that could not put a damper on the wonderful kolę was magical.”

What’s “Normal?”

I contacted St. Anthony’s rectory and discovered that Midnight Mass is now conducted only in English and “normal Christmas carols” are sung.

When my hometown Polish parish — St. Michael’s in Haverhill, Massachusetts closed, along with the Italian and Lithuanian churches, the congregations were directed to merge at the former St. Joseph’s Church — now renamed All Saint’s Church. Our choir under the direction of Stanisław Smardz, was well known throughout Polish circles. The choir had recorded an album of kolędy, performed on television, and for Cardinal Karol Wojtyła. The arrangements of these carols, many of them pre-war and handwritten, were unique and not to be found, even in Poland.

When it came to Midnight Mass at their new home, our illustrious choir was allowed to sing for a half-hour before Mass; one song during offertory; “Cicha Noc” with an English verse during Communion; and then close after an organ recessional, with “Bóg się Rodzi,” as the congregation hastily departed, talking and making a ruckus. At St. Michael’s, everyone would sit in their pews respectfully, until the reverent carol was completed. During the first years at the new church, the choir was recognized as “the Polish choir,” now no mention is made and many assume we must be singing in Latin.

The First of Three Masses

In the Fourth century, by order of Empress (Saint) Helena, churches were erected on hallowed spots in the Holy Land. The Basilica of the Nativity was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity. In the fifth century a special form for Christmas Mass was enacted at this location. Since the mid-sixth century Rome was the presence of the celebration on this day with three Masses: Midnight Mass, Mass at Dawn, and Masses during the day.

Each year the Midnight Mass from the Vatican is celebrated by the Pope in the Basilica of St. Peter.

Sandra Cika
St. Casimir’s
Youngstown, Ohio

“Attending Midnight Mass at St. Casimir’s for me has been a lifelong tradition. I am 44 years old and have been to this celebration 44 times ... and very sadly this year will be my last Polish Midnight Mass. My parish will close in February to merge with other ethnic parishes, as part of the Cathedral of St. Columba.

“Because my Mother and three sisters all sang in the choir, it was an annual race to the church after our Wigilia meal had been completed. We would climb the stairs to the choir loft and perform for an hour before mass began.

“I always was fascinated to see the many faces — old and young that would look upward to the choir as they entered or when they heard a personal favorite from the selection we had prepared for many weeks. Some would smile, some would join in, some would cry. As an adult, I realize those tear-filled faces were remembering those who taught them those songs originally, and who are no longer with us now.

“Our post-Mass activities continued as my family would make stops at the homes of close friends who had a “shut-in,” usually a home-bound Babcia. We would visit, enjoy some cookies, and bring kolędy, as a piece of the mass to them so they would feel a part of the celebration. Our church may close, but the memories, traditions, and loyal friendships I gained there will live on!”

Today’s Midnight Mass

In recent years some churches have scheduled their “Midnight” Mass as early as 7:00 p.m. In 2009 Vatican officials rescheduled the Midnight Mass to start at 10 pm, so the 82 year old Pope Benedict XVI would not have too late a night. Midnight services are losing mass appeal at American parishes, as many churches have yielded to earlier, more “convenient” services of the Christmas Eve rite.

“Our family has gone to Midnight Mass at 10:00 p.m. for the last few years at The Church is Our Lady of Good Counsel,” said Micheline Jaminski, director of Chicago’s Wesoły Lud Dance Ensemble.

“One year, we attended Midnight Mass at Ss. Cyril & Methodius in Lemont, Ill. and were impressed that the Podhalanie actually came dressed in their Góralski (highlander) costumes. It added that special touch of ethnicity to the celebration.”

The Górale transplanted from the Polish mountains to Chicagoland and other areas, such as New Jersey have fiercely held their ground to maintain a “through-and through” Polish atmosphere to their church worship, and they are not backing down.

Polonia Adapts

“Our Pasterka at The Church of the Holy Cross in Minneapolis is generally standing room only,” said Edward Rajtar, Director of Dolina Polish Folk Dancers of the Twin Cities. “Ours is dual language, with the majority of singing in Polish.”

My favorite part is watching the second and third generation Polish Americans who don’t speak Polish, participate in the singing of kolędy — the songs that they have been singing since their youth and continue by passing them on to their children.”

Those originally from Poland are searching for a community to fulfill their religious obligations – that community is Polish. The church hierarchy wants new migrants to integrate with American congregations, rather than remaining in Polish enclaves. Poles will go to American churches, but the culture is foreign – the understanding of the sermons and pronunciation of the prayers difficult for some. Behind the words of welcome in the merger churches there is caution.

“They should be seen as contributing to the whole church and not part of it,” said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. “I would hope that they would become more integrated. We want their contribution to Catholic witness and it will be more effective as part of the normal Catholic community.”

Poland’s culture has lasted in spite of a turbulent history, and has accompanied the Polish nation throughout its whole history. With the future of the Polish ethnic church in America in balance and the disappearance of so many Polish parishes and communities, the Polish Pasterka Midnight Mass is celebrated less often in the United States. Particularly during the holidays, the Polish community has been deeply affected by this loss of its ethnic identity and the celebration of specific traditions, not encountered in American Catholic services. Our challenge is to retain the knowledge of previous generations before this history is totally lost.

With nostalgic melancholy and vivid memory, I will travel to Massachusetts for Christmas, climb the stairs to the choir loft of a church that is not my own, and sing with Pan Smardz’s “Polish choir” — the choir originally from St. Michael’s Polish Church, and release the kolędy prayers to the heavens at a Midnight Mass that is not Polish…as the Ghosts from our churches and of our ancestors boldly sing, and with a tear…smile from above.




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