Today I’m going to take a break from writing about books, and instead share with you some Polish Christmas traditions. As my family is part Polish, these are the traditions that I grew up with, and form some of my fondest Christmas memories.
Traditionally, Christmas celebrations begin on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day. This begins at dinner, which is known as Wigilia (The Vigil). Dinner begins when the youngest child spots the first star in the sky. My family always says that we will do this, but I don’t think that I can recall a year that we were actually able to start on time. It’s also traditional to save an extra seat for an unexpected guest (or for Jesus), but I’m from a large family, so we generally just add tables as needed for whomever arrives. Extra visitors are always welcome, and we’ll always manage to find a place for everyone.
The dinner begins with the passing and breaking of Oplatki. Oplatek is a thin wafer that resembles (and tastes like) a cross between a communion wafer and those flying saucer candies that you get as a kid. It’s generally stamped with religious images, and comes in a variety of pastel colors.
Each person at the table in order from oldest to youngest takes turns sharing a Christmas wish/blessing, which also functions as a toast. The person speaking then breaks a piece off of his or her oplatek and passes it around the table, continuing until all the oplatek has been broken and each person has offered his or her Christmas wish. The oplatek is then dipped in honey and eaten.
Dinner is a feast, albeit without meat. This is because for much of history, Roman Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat at all during advent. This tradition is preserved at Wigilia, where fish is served as the main course. There are traditionally thirteen courses for good luck (one for Jesus and each of the 12 apostles). Another must-have dish for Polish-Americans is pierogi, but pierogi originated as a peasant food, so they’re hard to find in modern Poland. Next there are the prunes marinated in brandy. One must follow the recipe precisely, making sure that the chef drinks the proper amount of brandy whilst preparing it. Other courses include marinated mushrooms, sauerkraut, and noodles with poppyseed. Tradition also dictates leaving a bite of each dish on one’s plate for the angels.
Another tradition on Christmas Eve is to listen to Koledy–Polish Christmas Carols. The songs themselves are quite beautiful, and very unique among Christmas music as a whole. Linked below is an example, the song Mędrcy świata, which translates as “Sages of the World.” The song is performed by Mazowsze, the Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble. Albums are finally available in mp3 format on Amazon, which is exciting because it used to be very hard to find the traditional Koledy sung by professionals once vinyl records went out of vogue.
Christmas Eve then ends with Pasterka, or Midnight Mass. Unfortunately, many parishes no longer offer a midnight mass, or push the time to 10pm instead. If a church has a large Polish-American population, Koledy are often sung during the half hour before Midnight Mass begins.
Another tradition in my family (although I’m not sure where it originated) is to take a piece of straw from the Nativity scene and to keep it in one’s wallet throughout the next year, to keep one from ever running out of money. Straw plays an important role in traditional Polish Wigilia and is often placed upon under the tablecloth, as a reminder of the manger in which Jesus was placed, but that can be a bit messy and stir up the allergies.
Wigilia with family and listening to Koledy have always been the parts of Christmas that I enjoy the most. What about you? What holiday traditions do you celebrate?
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Soltsice, etc.), and a Happy New Year!