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Individuals around the entire globe celebrate a variety of holidays in accordance with religious, cultural, and seasonal traditions. The Polish people are no exception to this, and considering an overwhelming majority of around 87% of the population is Roman Catholic, the nation’s people have developed many specific traditions surrounding the well known and celebrated Catholic holidays over the centuries, perhaps most well-known: Christmas.
The Christmas season is typically begun early in the month of December in Poland, marked by the beginning of Advent: a religious season beginning 4 Sundays before Christmas day characterized by modest preparation for the birth of Christ. Homes are deep cleaned and prepared for Christmas day, including scrubbing carpets, cleaning windows, as well as decorating for the Holiday. Individuals also pay special attention to their ‘internal selves’ by attending church frequently, sometimes giving things up such as a favorite food. In school, Children participate in plays of the Nativity called Jasełka, which oftentimes are more secular than religious, and frequently take a modern twist on the traditional story.
All of this preparation comes to a pinnacle on Christmas Eve (Wigilia) -the night before Christmas- where more specific traditions come into play. Families prepare by wearing their best and most festive clothing in preparation for the main Christmas meal. Tradition dictates that no food is eaten until the first star is seen in the sky when it turns dark. Children will often wait and watch for the first star to show at night, which serves a double purpose in its reminder of the Wiseman who followed the star to find baby Jesus. Symbols used to remember the true meaning of the holiday are common: another popular tradition is to leave a small pile of straw on the floor in the home or under the table cloth of the Christmas meal as a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable.
Kolacja wigilijna or Christmas Eve Supper is centered around 12 specific dishes: 12 in order to symbolize Jesus’ 12 disciples. The dishes are also said to give the partakers good luck for 12 months. Since the day of Christmas Eve is considered a fasting day, and many individuals go the entire day without eating, the meal is large in order to accommodate the large appetite of those who are involved in the fasting ritual. It’s also traditionally meat free in order to symbolize/recognize the animals that watched over Jesus in the manger when he was born.
Before the meal begins, a large wafer-like biscuit called Oplatek (similar to the wafer used as Eucharist during Catholic Communion) with the image of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus imprinted onto it, is passed around the table and each member of the family breaks off a piece of it and eats it, sharing exchanges of wishes for peace and prosperity. Sometimes a small piece may even be given to house pets or farm animals. Another tradition surrounding Kolacja wigilijna is to leave a place to eat for Niespodziewany Gość, an ‘unexpected guest.’ The belief goes, that no person should be alone or hungry, especially on Christmas Eve. Therefore if an unexpected guest knocks on the door, they are welcomed to the meal. Sometimes the extra spot at that table is set up for a relative who previously passed away, or a loved one who couldn’t make it to the meal.
1 of the 12 dishes enjoyed by participants in the meal might include Barszcz which is a beat soup that is viewed as quite obligatory to the feast, which may be enjoyed with uszka (dumplings with mushrooms) or krokiety (pancakes with mushrooms/cabbage in bread crumbs, fried in oil/butter). Carp is often frequently eaten as the main dish of the meal, and while some may simply buy a fillet of fish, others will buy the fish live a few days in advance to the meal and let it swim around in their bathtub. The Carp’s scales are said to bring good luck and in some cases are kept the length of the entire year. Herring is another popular fish dish, that each family has their own recipe for, passed down from generation to generation.
In terms of beverages, kompot z suszu is often enjoyed, which is made by boiling dried fruits and fresh apples. Popular desserts eaten with the meal often include makowiec (sweet yeast bread roll made with poppy seeds), kutia (dried fruit and nuts mixed with wheat seeds), piernik (moist cake made with honey), and gingerbread.
Gift opening occurs no sooner than the meal is finished (which is traditionally both started and finished by the adults of the household). In order to tease the children eagerly awaiting the gift opening process, sometimes the adults will sing Christmas carols to extend the wait after dinner before the process can continue. Many different carols have taken popularity in Poland, however each region has its own specific carols. Some popular carols include Wśród nocnej ciszy (Within Night’s Silence), Bóg się rodzi (God is Born), Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep Baby Jesus), and Dzisiaj w Betlejem (Today In Bethlehem).
When it finally comes time to open gifts, they are brought to the children by Saint Nicholas (otherwise known as Santa Claus). However, in different parts of Poland, there are different gift bringers such as the Star Man, who might not always bring nice gifts for children who may have been naughty throughout the year.
Another tradition for Polish Christmas that’s different than the way it’s celebrated in modern day US culture, is that the Christmas tree is often brought in and decorated on Christmas Eve (typically not as common today). The star decorated on top is there to represent the Star of Bethlehem, and the tree is also decorated with items such as gingerbreads, lights, and sphere shaped ornaments called bombki. Some households might even practice the tradition of breaking an ornament on Christmas Eve in order to scare any evil spirits out of the house.
Christmas is celebrated by perhaps billions of individuals worldwide each year, whether the individuals are religious or not. The Polish traditions surrounding this special holiday are unique to their culture and history, as well as their religious origins. Whether celebrated in Poland or not, those with the heritage can be seen celebrating all or parts of these traditions to this very day.