Polish customs, especially at Christmas time, are both beautiful and meaningful.
The provisions for Christmas begin many days before the real celebration. Nearly everywhere women are cleaning windows in apartments and houses just before Christmas. The insides of the houses are also cleaned thoroughly. It is believed that if a house is dirty on Christmas Eve, it will remain dirty all next year.
Weather-forecasting is quite popular during Christmas. Everything that falls away on Christmas, letting in the atmospheric condition, has an impact on the following year. The weather on Easter and throughout the next year supposedly depends upon the weather on Christmas (snow, rain, and so on). Only a white Christmas is regarded a real Christmas; therefore, everybody is happy when there is fresh snow outside.
Some ceremonies take place before the Christmas Eve supper. Among farmers, a traditional ritual is the blessing of the fields with holy water and the placing of crosses made from straw into the four corners. It is likewise considered that creatures can speak with a human representative.
Straw is put under the white tablecloth. Some maidens predict their future from the straw. After supper, they pull out blades of straw from beneath the tablecloth. A green one foretells marriage; a dead one signifies waiting; a yellow one predicts spinsterhood and a very short one foreshadows an early tomb.
Poles are famous for their hospitality, especially during Christmas. In Poland, an additional seat is saved for somebody unknown at the supper table. No one should be left alone at Christmas, so strangers are welcomed to the Christmas dinner. This is to remind us that Mary and Joseph were also looking for shelter. In Poland, several homeless people were interviewed after Christmas. More or less of them were invited to strangers’ houses for Christmas; others that were not needed inside the households but were granted piles of food.
It is still firmly believed that whatever occurs on Wigilia (Christmas Eve) has an impact on the coming year. So, if an argument should arise, a quarrelsome and troublesome year will follow. In the morning, if the first visiting person is a man, it means good luck; if the visitor is a woman, one might expect misfortune. Everyone, however, is beaming when a mailman comes by, for this signifies money and success in the future. To secure good luck and to keep evil outside, a branch of mistletoe is hung above the front doorway. Eventually, old grudges should end. If, for some reason, you do not speak with your neighbor, now is the time to forget old, ill feelings and to exchange good wishes.
Traditionally, the Christmas tree is dressed on the Wigilia day – quite an event for kids. The custom of having a Christmas tree was First introduced in Alsace (today a region of eastern France) at the end of the 15th century. Three centuries later, it was common around the globe. Early on, the tree was decorated with apples to commemorate the forbidden fruit – the apple of paradise (the garden of Eden). Today, the Christmas tree is adorned 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 bright paper (angel’s hair), and home-made paper chains. The latter, nonetheless, has become rarer because commercially produced aluminum foil chains are being traded.
Christmas and Santa Claus Day are not celebrated at the same time in Poland, but preferably three weeks apart. Santa Claus (called Mikolaj) Day is celebrated on December 6th, the name day of St. Nicholas. This is when St. Nicholas visits some children in person or secretly during the nighttime.
Christmas Day, called the first holiday by the Poles, is spent with the family at home. No chatting, cleaning, nor cooking are permitted on that day; only previously cooked food is stirred up. This is a day of enjoyment, for Jesus was born. On Christmas Day, people start to observe the weather very carefully. It is thought that each day foretells the weather for a certain month of the next year. Christmas Day predicts January’s weather, St. Stephen’s Day impacts February’s, etc.
St. Stephen’s Day is known as the second holiday. This is a day for visiting and exchanging Christmas greetings. When night begins to come down, you can hear stamping and jingling, followed by Christmas carol singing outside. Carolers begin their wandering from home to home. Herod, a traditional form of caroling, is a live performance usually played by twelve young boys. Dressed in unique costumes, they include King Herod, a field marshal, a knight, a soldier, an angel, a devil, death, a Jew, Mary, shepherds, and sometimes the Three Kings and an accordionist. They sing simple songs and carols, and when let into a house, perform scenes from King Herod’s life. Oration and songs vary and depend upon to whom they are being addressed: the owner of the house, a young woman about to be married, a widow, etc. At the end, the performers are offered refreshments and some money. Also popular is caroling with a crib (szopka) and with a star. Usually, those are items are carried by three caroling teenagers. They, as well, are moved over just about money.
The Breaking of the Oplatek
One of the most beautiful and most revered Polish customs is the breaking of the oplatek. The use of the Christmas wafer (oplatek) is not only by native Poles in Poland, but also by people of Polish ancestry all over the world.
The oplatek is a thin wafer made of flour and water. For table use, it is white. In Poland, colored wafers are used to make Christmas tree ornaments. In the past, the wafers were baked by organists or by religious and were distributed from house to house in the parish during Advent. Today, they are produced commercially and are sold in religious stores and homes. Sometimes an oplatek is sent in a greeting card to loved ones away from home.
On Christmas Eve, the whole family gets together and waits impatiently for the show of the first superstar. With its first gleam, they all approach a table covered with hay and a snow-white tablecloth. A vacant chair and a place setting are reserved for an unexpected guest, always provided for inhospitable Polish homes
The father or eldest member of the family reaches for the wafer breaks it in half and gives one-half to the mother. Then, each of them breaks a small part of each other’s piece. They wish one another a long life, good health, joy, and happiness, not only for the holiday season, but also for the new year and for many years to come. This ceremony is repeated between the parents and their children as well as among the children; then, the wafer and good wishes are exchanged with all those present, including relatives and even strangers. When this natural action is over, they all sit-down and enjoy a tasty though meatless supper, after which they sing koledy (Christmas carols and pastorals) until time for midnight Mass, as well known as Pasterka (“the Mass of the Shepherds”).
By Halina Ostańkowicz–Bazan