Thursday, December 18, 2008

Polish Christmas Traditions

This post is in response to Sue Q's question last month.
Christmas in Poland (or at least in our smallish city) is a much simpler affair than it is in the United States. The holiday is observed with at least as much reverence as it is in the States, but there is far less hoopla surrounding it.

On the radio over the weekend one of the deejays was talking about how in Warsaw he has already seen people driving through town with their tree strapped to the top of their car. The tradition is that you put up and decorate your tree on Christmas Eve, and we had more than a week and a half to go!

Stores do very little (if any) decorating for Christmas, just something simple and nice. You don't see Santas all over town. Hardly anyone decorates their houses with lights, and no one decorates it with anything besides lights. This makes it a real treat to see a house lit up. I've gotten used to it, and I actually like it (I really, really missed this the first few years here, and still do).

The most celebrated part of the holiday is Wigilia--Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, as I say, the tree is decorated. Then, when the first star appears, there is a big feast. Tradition calls for 12 dishes to be served for this meal, so I think the Poles have Americans beat for amount of time spent preparing the dinner. There is meant to be one extra place set at the table for any poor wanderer that may chance by and be in need of a warm meal. Also, there is a bit of straw strewn across the table and then covered by the table cloth to commemorate the birth of the savior in the manger.

Before the meal is eaten, Poles have a custom that I think is wonderful. There is a large rectangular wafer (about the size of a face card) that is embossed with a Nativity scene. The eldest member of the family breaks this wafer into pieces, giving one piece to each member of the family. Then each person goes around to the others exchanging broken off bits of their wafer along with hugs and well wishes for the coming year. Very often the wishes are almost memorized, "I wish you health, and happiness and success in your endeavors. . .etc." but they are taken quite seriously and there is a wonderful spirit in the room during this exchange. It is during this exchange that people often shake off grudges and forgive past wrongs. It is really lovely and sets a beautiful mood for the meal that will be eaten together.

As Poland is ninety-five percent Catholic, this holiday (Christmas Eve) has been a day of "fast" (no meat) for generations until it was changed just a few years ago. This means that the big meal is comprised in large part of fish. About a week before Christmas, stores put up pools full of live fish. Big ones. You come in and choose and buy the one you want, and it is perfectly normal (and also completely hilarious IMO) that many Poles have fish swimming in their bathtubs for days before Christmas so they can have fresh fish for this meal. Of course, this causes those of us who don't appreciate sea food to feel less than excited about the dinner. Fried carp. Pickled herring. Stuffed pike. Makes some people's stomaches growl and others' turn. At least there are other delicious dishes served alongside the fish. Things like borscht, cabbage with peas (which is absolutley nothing like what it sounds like. At all. It's extremely delicious.) and pierogi. And for dessert there is the famous poppyseed cake I've written about before.

Later there is present opening. As long as I've known them, Greg's family have opened all the presents on Christmas Eve. There is no "exchange" of presents. The gifts are marked with the name of the person it is for, and they are handed out in a general way (usually our youngest child does it). It is said that all the gifts are from Santa. This means that you can spend as much time as you like finding the perfect gift for someone, but they won't necessarily know that you're the one who bought it. I love this tradition, as it demands that we seek no glory in our giving. I also hate this tradition as it demands that we seek no glory in our giving. I think it is more normal to open most of the presents on Christmas day. The 25th is Christmas day and the 26th is the second day of Christmas. Apart from visiting family members, I am unaware of any traditions observed on these two days.


So Christmas is a time for family to be together. It is a time when people spend days cooking in preparation for the Christmas Eve dinner and then spend a memorable evening enjoying it together. It is an evening of singing Christmas carols together and sharing gratitude for the birth of the Redeemer.

I have never been home for Christmas in the eight years that we've lived here, and I have become used to the Polish way. There are many things I like about it. Polish Christmas carols are absolutely beautiful. the music as well as the lyrics. There isn't all the bustle and stress that you sometimes feel in America (althought there are things I like about that as well). Still, in our home I keep most of the traditions that I knew as a child. "Santa" fills stockings and we read about Jesus' birth in the scriptures. We play games or watch a Christmas movie in the evening. But I am glad that we also stay with Greg's parents and share in their Polish traditions, as well!

25 comments:

Erin said...

Thank you for sharing those traditions with us! I love learning new things about countries throughout the world.

Annette Lyon said...

Some of those are really beautiful traditions--and some remind me of Finland. My husband served his mission in Czechoslovakia (when it still was that), and the people there raise a fish in their bathtub to eat for Christmas. Similar concept, I guess!

Barbaloot said...

What great traditions. I do feel bad (for them) that they don't decorate sooner. Seeing all the beautiful trees and lights throughout the season is one of my favorite things. Plus, it's SUCH a chore to put up and take down things that you have to be abel to enjoy it all December. Right?

JustRandi said...

Sounds a little more reverent and focused than it is here, and I love that!
Thanks for sharing it.

Heidi Ashworth said...

I loved hearing all of this--and I admire you for learning to love the differences (though I am way with you on the lack of glory for the gifts). So, you actually stay the night at the inlaws? Or longer? Do they live far away from you? We have a tradition here at our house that I could do without--it usually involves cleaning up either barf or a flooded toilet. It has become unescapable. But, I will try to follow your excellent example and learn to love it. :S

Lara said...

I loved reading about these! They are similar in some ways to romanian Christmas tradition, but also very different.

My favorite is the one you described with the Nativity wafer. Very neat. Wondering how I can incorporate something similar into my own family tradition.

Sue Q said...

This was so sweet. I have never been out of the country for Christmas or any holiday -- well, I did happen to be in Canada over July 4th once. Canadians don't like that holiday much at all! (At least, the ones we ran into didn't...)

Anway, Emma has written and rewritten Evie's letter about a dozen times, and since they had the day off from school today for a "blizzard" that was supposed to come into town, I told her to sit down and finish it once and for all so we can get it in the mail already! Evie might get it by Groundhog day at this rate!

Moody said...

Wow, some really neat customs! My dad said that when he was growing up, the tree didn't go up until Christmas Eve, and then when the kids woke up on Christmas it was all decorated. It was part of their Christmas present (he grew up in the depression). I do like the wafer tradition, but not so much the fish!

Rebecca said...

I really enjoyed reading about Christmas in Poland! It sounds so warm and a lot less stress and expectations than here in America (except for the cooking 12 courses part!)

I'm enjoying your blog, and thanks so much for your comment over at Blogger's Annex! You absolutely made my day!

Kazzy said...

Wow! I love all of the traditions. The wafer one is such a warm and wonderful idea. Thanks for sharing your adopted traditions!

Becky said...

Mmmm... pierogi! (Mine probably aren't authentic, but Adam says they taste close-ish to what he ate in Ukraine.)

These are all fun traditions. I like how it's more of a low-key affair - more time to focus on the Savior.

I love you posts about Poland. They make me feel a little cultured. :)

Nathan said...

What a great description of Christmas in Poland, which like you, I like overall much better than its American incarnation! But I saw a lot more Santas on t.v. and in advertisements a week or so ago while I was in Poland, including the chance to meet him at the Tesco I went to with you all (and where Evie won a prize by singing "Jingle Bells" in English).

I love the wafer tradition, I love midnight mass (which I don't think you mentioned), and I really love the carols. The commercialization of the holiday is definitely occurring--as compared to when I was there in the early 1990s, but most of the holiday remains intact. In fact the only tradition I could certainly do without is the carp and herring. Too bad that tradition is ossified.

Holidays, of course, are the best place for outdated culinary tastes to remain--precisely because they have become "traditions." I could sure do without the pickled pig's feet jelly at Easter and the carp at Christmas. Thankfully, Poles don't eat that everyday now. . .

Rebecca said...

I really am enjoying your blog, so I hope you don't mind me following you.

By the way, I responded to a comment you left on Annette Lyon's blog. I never have known anyone else with that same thought! Pretty cool!

Heather of the EO said...

So interesting! I love learning more about Poland. I'm LOVING the wafer thing. And the gift exchange with no glory :) Lovely traditions.

MelancholySmile said...

This year I'm hosting Christmas Eve, and I would love to sprinkle straw on the table and set an extra place. Thanks for sharing-- I think it's easier for you to 'report back' all about polish traditions {as opposed to a native Pole}, since you understand American traditions and can point out the differences. Thanks for the fascinating post!

Oh, and do they have Christmas cartoons? The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, or a Charlie Brown Christmas? Somehow I can't picture the holidays without them. :)

Me plus 3 Hecks said...

How interesting! My friend, Daisha, just wrote about how they celebrate in England and it's so fascinating to see the differences. You just start thinking that Christmas is Christmas, so of course everyone does the same things. I was also just reading about how Sarah Brightman "shocked" many by releasing a Christmas Album that was "very British" so Americans wouldn't get it. I had no idea the songs were not basically the same. I guess I am an ignoramous. But thankyou for reminding me of my dear pierogi. They are my fave--lots of Eastern Europeans in Saskatchewan and so pierogi are just a regular part of holiday feasts. They sell a frozen brand here that I enjoy partaking of, as a close substitute. Anyway, MERRY CHRISTMAS! Off to eat figgy pudding! (j/k)

charrette said...

I'd trade you any day. Christmas in Poland sounds wonderful! I think I'm going to talk my family into celebrating Polish-style next Christmas. I especially love the idea of the feast and the symbolism of the wafers. So lovely! Also, Kazzy and I sang a Polish carol last year in our Christmas Chorus, and I agree, it was beautiful....and that was just one! I would love to know more!

Thank you for taking hte time to share all this!

Abra said...

I love love love Perogies! (that's how we spell it here)SO Yummy! We have it for Christmas sometimes, just because they're so good.

How interesting to hear about other cultures! Thanks for sharing!

McEwens said...

What great traditions! I love how the gift exchange works. I think it would be great to really get just one and really shop and put lots of thought into it, and then.... let it be from Santa!

Kaylynn said...

Beautiful! It reminds me of Strenga Norga. Have a beautiful day!

Melanie J said...

I love this little snapshot you gave us. I just learned a whole bunch of stuff I didn't know before!

Susan said...

Oh Lisa! I ruined the wafer you sent us last (?) year! We all sort of nibbled it and thought it was strange. I'm sure you explained it, but I'm pretty much the world's worst listener and probably only heard "... so it looks like a paper, but you're supposed to all eat a little bit of it..."

Too bad you and yours and me and mine won't be in Utah for the big Lee family get together this year! But hopefully Claymation Christmas will help you feel a little connected :)

Jenni said...

Lisa,

Tell me which recordings of koledy I should get. The 2 that I have are not my favorite and I don't really have a way to play casette tapes anymore!

3 Bay B Chicks said...

Such an amazing post. I loved reading about the different Polish traditions you have to celebrate Christmas. Such fun. For years, our family meal has been comprised primarily of fish, too. We are Italian, so my Mom likes to follow certain traditions each year.

Your glory/no glory gift giving description really made me laugh.

Happy Holidays!

-Francesca

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

Minus the fish (gag, gag), it all sounds very lovely. Isn't it funny how your "normal" experiences can be so eye-opening/educational for the rest of us? Cool.