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Christmas in Polish Style
December 24, 2015
Polish Wigilia (literally vigil or eve, but in Polish Wigilia means only Christmas Eve) is without any doubt the most important celebration in the whole year. Doesn’t matter your religious affiliation or lack of it, Wigilia is celebrated as family gathering with huge but completely meatless feast, lots of laughs, talks, sometimes caroling and sharing gifts and stories.
Although every region of Poland has their own little variation of the menu (ex. never ending “war” between borsch and mushroom soup supporters) and other traditions, some things are set in stone. So let me present a short story of typical Polish Wigilia.
Obviously, preparations start long before actual supper, but family gathering officially starts when the first star appears on the sky. Spotting it is usually the task of the young ones. At this point all should be ready: Christmas Tree decorated (that takes place in the morning and traditionally ornaments include: handmade paper and straw decorations, little sweets such as candies, gingerbread cookies in different shapes, small apples and beautiful Polish glass balls – bombki), food prepared, and a table covered with white starched tablecloth with a little hay underneath. Except seats and plates for hosts and all guests there is always one more “empty seat” for “an unexpected guest” as on this night no one should be alone or excluded from the celebration.
When the first star appears, designated person (usually father or grandfather) reads fragment from the Bible describing the birth of Jesus. After that everyone takes "an opłatek" to share it with others. "Opłatek" or Christmas Eve Wafer is type of unleavened bread, very white and thin and usually with Nativity Scenes imprinted on it. Moment of braking opłatek with everyone in turn is very beautiful and emotional as it is time to forgive each other, assure of mutual love, remember those who passed away and look with hope to the future wishing each other all the best for the Holidays and New Year. After that the meal starts.
Traditionally there are 12 dishes. Food served during Wigilia represents what in old times was available to the regular people – usually peasants – at that time of the year, so there is a lot of fresh-water fish, vegetables (with strong presence of cabbage and sauerkraut), dried goods like mushrooms and fruits, and grains. There are also much richer recipes (like Fish in Gray Sauce calling for some saffron, raisins and other expensive spices) that used to be eaten by wealthy people and Polish noble men called "szlachta", but somehow they didn’t become such canons like Borsch, Pierogi, Split Peas and Cabbage or Sauerkraut with Mushrooms and others.
It takes time to eat so much, so supper takes good several hours and often eating is alternated with some caroling. Usually before dessert it’s time for sharing gifts. Sometimes one of the adults dresses as "Święty Mikołaj" (Saint Nicolas) delivering gifts in person or presents can be simply left under the Christmas Tree. Gifts are opened together, so everyone may know what others got and share the joy and laughs. Naughty kids can get nothing but the spanking cane – at least in theory, but in practice even if they get one of those, they also get something else to sweeten their disappointment.
After sweets are eaten it is time for some to go to "Pasterka" – Christmas Midnight Mass.
Christmas Day is not as rich in traditions as Christmas Eve. It is usually time to visit friends and family whom you didn’t see the night before; to rest, and to visit different churches to check their nativity scenes. In villages traditions of caroling is still somewhat alive, so during days between Christmas and New Year caroling groups go from house to house. In their group there are usually people dressed as: an angel, a devil, a king (Herod), a death, "Turoń" (goat-like “monster”) and person carrying a star. Rest of the people from the group may be in traditional folk cloths. They sing, ask for food and sweets, give little Christmas related performances, joke and play some good natured pranks. This tradition however is dying off slowly.
So here is how Polish Christmas looks (or in some instances used to look).
Here in the United States I try to follow old traditions from my childhood home, and try to help friends from the Old Country to do the same. Hence all the poppy seed cakes (makowce) and the honey-spice cakes (pierniki) that we bake in BECAUSE... Cakes & Decor. I hope they bring the same tastes we remember from childhood and they help in celebrating this unique Holiday - Christmas in Polish style :o)
To all our Polish and American Friends:
Wesołych Świąt i szczęśliwego Nowego Roku - Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
 Name of Christmas Midnight Mass “Pasterka” comes from the word “pasterz” meaning “shepherd”