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!