Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas in Poland!

In times past and today, for Poles, Christmas Eve was/is a time of family gathering and reconciliation. More so in the past, it was also a night of magic: Animals are said to talk in a human voice and people have the power to tell the future. The belief was born with our ancestors who claimed that Dec. 24 was a day to mark the beginning of a new era. It was bolstered by sayings such as, "As goes Christmas Eve, goes the year." Hoping for a good 12 months, everyone was polite and generous to one another and forgave past grievances.

Today, few treat the old traditions seriously, but some survive as family fun. "Maidens" interested in their marital future and older people, who try to predict next year's weather based on the sky's aura between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night (Jan. 6), sometimes cling to past 'pagan in nature' superstitions. Some Scandinavian cultures have a similar pagan past.


Today, Wigilia (vee-GEEL-yah), which literally means "vigil," or waiting for the birth of Baby Jesus, is considered more important than Christmas Day itself. When I lived in Poland, I celebrated with my family who live in Silesia. Which has a somewhat different tradition that other regions in Poland. Yet, in all Poland, the custom of gifts given to children happens on St. Nicholas Day Dec. 6.  

Are there presents given on Christmas Eve? Yes, but not on Christmas Day, there is no Santa Claus coming in through the chimney. So, who is responsible for the gifts received on Christmas Eve? In Silesia, the lesser region, where I celebrated Wigilia, it was/is the baby Jesus or his messenger, a small angel, that brings the presents and, since they are invisible, their presence is signaled by the ringing of a bell. The children are supposed to remain silent during Christmas Eve dinner so that the gift givers would not be afraid to enter the house.

Now, in greater Poland, where my grandmother's family was/is from the tradition is a bit different.  In the region of Greater Poland ( Wielkopolska, PoznaƄ ) the Starman (a man with a gwiazdor (star) gives the gifts to the children. The Starman is not as jovial and kind as St. Nicholas -- he first threatens the children with a beating with a wooden birch, but then relents and opens a sack of presents to be passed around. The tradition of the Starman is very old indeed. It is speculated it came to Poland from Germany through the so-called Weihnachtsmann.


In Silesia, the Christmas Eve dinner is splendid.  Poles enjoy more than a few courses. Beginning with two kinds of soup.  First, was chicken soup called Rosol or a mushroom soup with small square pasta, and then followed by beet root soup with small pierogi filled with mushrooms. This was followed by two kinds of pierogi: Russian (potato/onion) and mushroom. Once that course finished, we were served fried fish (Carp) with fried mushrooms (dried and reconstituted). Also, on the table was a sweet bread to go with fish 'meatballs',  and there was fish in gelatin, and even herring in olive oil with fresh lemon slices and black pepper corns. Besides the fish meatballs, what I also found to be very good was a hot succotash of cabbage with chick peas/lima beans. The Christmas Eve beverage was a smoked fruit compote (warm punch/juice). For desert there was fruit and nut cheesecake and a poppy seed porridge with nuts and raisins.

Believe me, this was very strange to me the first time I experienced Wigilia - Christmas Eve dinner in Poland. However, the beauty of it soon came into my heart and has stayed in my heart ever since. It is the anticipation of the Christ, the Holy Spirit the Son of God's arrival on earth that is truly profound and found in the Polish Christmas celebration. 

Most Poles go to Midnight Mass called Pasterka, "the Mass of the Shepherds" to commemorate the shepherds who were the first to greet the newborn baby Jesus.