Re-discover your Polish Christmas heritage
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel

If you are among the growing number of Polish Americans who believe Christmas has become far too commercialized, your Polish heritage may be worth exploring for meaningful alternatives. It contains numerous spiritual and cultural elements that can help enrich the Yuletide celebrations of your family, PNA lodge, parish or local community. To benefit from that heritage, however, it is necessary to go against the grain and not get swept up in the “shop till you drop” propaganda issuing from the press, radio, TV, billboards and the Internet. That includes convincing our impressionable youngsters that all the grinning Santas they see are not “men of good cheer”, but sales promoters out only after our credit cards. Here are some things to consider.

BONING UP: It would be quite difficult to pass non-existent or very scanty knowledge down to the younger generation, so many Pol-Ams would do well the first explore the Polish Christmas heritage, try cultivating it and finally share it with others. Suggested reading includes: the Polanie Club’s classic “Treasured Polish Christmas Customs & Traditions, Father Czesław Krysa’s “A Polish Christmas Eve” and Sophie Hodur-Knab’s “Polish Customs, Traditions & Folklore”. If you are on-line, check out

ADVENT (Adwent): This is a roughly four-week period of spiritual preparation for Christmas and a good time to remind our youngsters that the Christmas spirit is more than getting presents from Santa. It should also be a time to share our time, effort and abundance with those less fortunate: the poor, homeless, lonely, elderly and housebound. The media will be working overtime to convince people that this is mainly the time for house-cleaning, shopping, decorating and partying, so keep telling yourself and those around you not to forget to do good deeds (see next entry).

GOOD DEEDS (dobre uczynki): That idea can be instilled in preschoolers through “the hay of good deeds” (sianko dobrych uczynków)". The child receives a handful of hay (or dried grass clippings). He or she is told to place one strand of hay into an empty manger each time he or she performs a good deed: helps someone, shares something, helps around the house, etc. The more good deeds, the softer the bed Baby Jesus will have on Christmas Eve. Older youngsters can help prepare food baskets for the needy or pay visits to needy neighbors or nursing homes.

ST. NICHOLAS (Święty Mikołaj) is a good way to teach children the deeper meaning of the season: spirituality and charity. At a St. Nick celebration on or around his feast day (Dec. 6). the kindly old bishop quizzes youngsters on their prayers and charitable acts and rewards them with treats. Why promote the already grossly overpromoted Santa, the unsaintly patron of greedy sales promoters and spoiled brats, when our own heritage has a far better alternative?

POLISH CHRISTMAS GREETINGS, which you may want to add to your English Christmas card or a letter you send in Nov. or December to family in Poland, might read: “Zasyłamy serdeczne życzenia radosnych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia oraz dużo zdrowia i wszelkiej pomyślności w Nowym 2007 Roku!” A more religious-flavored version could go: “Obfitych łask Bożych życzymy całej Waszej Rodzinie podczas nadchodzących Świąt oraz przez cały Nowy 2007 Rok!”

POLISH HOLIDAY FAIR (kiermasz świąteczny) is a great fund-raiser that helps to promote our heritage One reason some Pol-Ams drift away from their heritage is the local unavailability of the necessary “fixings”. A Polish holiday fair, Christmas bazaar, bake sale, etc. can go a long way to remedying the situation by bringing it all together in one place. Such an event may feature opłatek, hay (for placing under the table-cloth), Wigilia foods, baked goods, imported delicacies, cultural artifacts (books, kolędy [notes, lyrics, recordings], Christmas cribs), gift items (amber, crystal, folkcrafts), etc.

POLISH EVERGREEN DECORATION (podłaźnik, podłaźniczka, sad), known long before the Christmas tree made the scene, consists of the peak-side-down top of an evergreen or an evergreen branch suspended from the ceiling or rafters, often over the dining-room table. It can be decorated with fruit, nuts, marzipan (almond-paste) confections and sweets in shimmering wrappings as well as home-made ornaments. It is worth promoting in our Pol-Am parishes, clubs and businesses and is great for small apartments because it does not take up any floor or table space.

POLISH CHRISTMAS WORKSHOP: Depending on available human resources (qualified instructors, publicity chairmen, volunteers) and local interest, such a project could focus on one or more aspects of our Polish Christmas heritage. It might include lectures coupled with videos, slides and practical demonstrations pertaining to folkcrafts (Kraków cribs, home-made tree ornaments, wycinanki, mobiles, caroling costumes and artifacts), customs, food preparation and/or choir carol practice. This is a good occasion to stress the importance of the Wigilia heritage to Polish Christmas celebrations (see next entry).

CHRISTMAS EVE (Wigilia): To Polish people everywhere, this is the single most important day of the year. Steeped in religious belief, tradition and folklore, it is usually shared with one’s nearest of kin. How you are on Wigilia (good, bad, happy, sad, peaceful or upset) resentful) is how you will be all year long – is a common belief. It is a festive meal of once-a-year treats and unique customs such as hay under the table-cloth and an empty place-setting at table. Rather than being allowed to dissolve in the Anglo-commercial meting pot, shouldn’t these beautiful old customs be passed on to the next generation at home and actively cultivated by our Pol-Am parishes, PNA lodges, schools, clubs and wherever?

CHRISTMAS EVE SUPPER (wieczerza wigilijna), Poland's single most important family gathering is rife with beautiful symbolism and age-old customs. Hay is scattered on the table beneath the table-cloth, and the meal begins when the evening's first star appears in the sky. It comprises (depending on local tradition) either a dozen or an odd number of meatless dishes. The meal begins when the evening’s first star appears in the sky with the sharing of opłatek. After the meal, kolędy are sung and gifts are exchanged, after which the family attends Pasterka (Midnight mass).

CHRISTMAS WAFER (opłatek) is a white unleavened wafer imprinted with nativity motifs and sometimes referred to as “angel bread” (“chleb anielski”). It is the single most important artifact of Polish-style Christmas, without which the celebration would be unthinkable. Traditionally bits of the wafer are shared amid an exchange of best wishes with all present as a sign of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

OPŁATEK GATHERING is also the name of a Christmas get-together which involves breaking and sharing opłatek at church, work, school, your PNA lodge, veterans’ post, Pol-Am club or community center. Often carols are sung and light refreshments may be served, but usually not a full meal.

CHRISTMAS EVE FOOD (potrawy wigilijne) is 100% meatless. Typical dishes include: herring (pickled, creamed, in oil, in salads); soups (clear beet with mushroom-filled dumplings, clear mushroom with noodles, mushroom-ryemeal soup, fish chowder), fried, baked, poached and/or jellied fish, sauerkraut dishes, pierogi (filled with sauerkraut, cabbage, mushrooms, cheese & potatoes); sweet dishes (poppyseed noodles, wheat pudding [kutia], dried-fruit compote, etc,) and Christmas cakes.

CHRISTMAS EVE LORE (wierzenia wigilijne) includes various folk beliefs, many having to do with the matrimonial prospects of the family's eligible girls. They would draw strands of hay from under the table-cloth: a yellow one meant marriage by spring, a green one predicted a longer wait and a withered one foretold spinsterhood. A barking dog in the distance meant that a suitor would come from that direction. It was also said that farm animals spoke with human voices at midnight and the water in wells turned to wine. But only those who had never sinned could taste it.

COMMUNITY WIGILIA, often referred to in Polonia as an “Opłatek Dinner”, can be little more than but a simple meal (fried fish, sauerkraut & mushrooms, pierogi, poppyseed cake) or may be a full multi-course supper. Usually it is held before Christmas some time during December, but holding the event on Christmas Eve itself should be considered especially in places where people have drifted away from the home Wigilia tradition or where there are many elderly people living alone with no-one to prepare thigns for. A parish hall would be the ideal venue for such a supper, followed by community caroling and finally attendance at Midnight Mass.

CHRISTMAS EXTRAVAGANZA would a “glorified community Wigilia”. In addition to the opłatek-sharing and Christmas Eve meal, however simple or elaborate, this get-together can also feature a variety of side events enhancing the overall heritage experience. These could include a Polish Christmas food & bake sale, a craft & gift bazaar, a cooking demonstration showing how to prepare Polish Christmas dishes, community caroling, a kolędy choir concert, Christmas play (see “jasełka” (below), and even a visit by the real Saint Nicholas, the kindly old bishop Święty Mikołaj, who quizzes kids on their prayers and good deeds before rewarding them with treats and gifts.

POTLUCK WIGILIA is a good way for families and clubs to reintroduce the Wigilia tradition from which they have drifted away. Rather than one family member or hired cooks preparing the entire costly spread, you can xerox typical Wigilia recipes (from “Polish Holiday Cookery” or other cookbooks) and allow participants to draw them out of a hat. Everyone prepares and donates the dish they drew. For larger crowds, there may be doubles or even triples of each recipe in the hat.

PROGRESSIVE WIGILIA is a take-off on the American custom of the “progressive dinner”, where different courses at served at successive homes. In the Wigilia version, the first stop could include the opłatek sharing and soup, the next home would serve herring and boiled potatoes; the hot fish dish and possibly also a sauerkraut dish would be prepared by the next home down the lone, followed by pierogi and/or other pasta (eg cabbage and noodles), finishing up with dessert (eg compote and poppyseed noodles) at the final stop.

A GIFT OF HERITAGE is something that will remind those on your gift list of our beautiful Polish traditions. It could be a book, recording, decorative item, something in amber or crystal, a wood-carving, wall-hanging (kilim), framed paper cut-out (wycinanki), etc. A gift that will be remembered all year long is a subscription to a Polish-American newspaper. Another is the 2007 Polish-American Calendar, highlighting the life and legacy of Saint John Paul II the Great (available at $5.95 a copy post-paid from: Donald F. Samull, 1312 N. Drexel, Dearborn, MI 48128; e-mail: [email protected]).

CHRISTMAS DAY, December 25th (Boże Narodzenie, Pierwsze Święto or Pierwszy Dzień Świąt) is anticlimactic in Polish tradition, because everything of importance has already taken place on Christmas Eve. Opłatek has been shared, once-a-year dishes enjoyed and Midnight Mass attended. And there is no need for a mad dash down to the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, because presents have already been exchanged after the Wigilia supper. Following morning Mass (Poles who attend Pasterka usually go to Mass again on Christmas morning), Christmas Day is a day of feasting and visiting with relatives and close friends. The food includes typical winter company fare: cold meats, salads and relishes, roast fowl, pork, veal, bigos and such Christmas cakes as poppyseed roll (strucla z makiem), gingerbread (piernik) and Polish fruitcake (keks).

ST. STEPHEN'S DAY, December 26th (Świętego Szczepana, Drugie Święto or Drugi Dzień Świąt commemorates the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death. Polish parishioners in the countryside symbolically mark that event by throwing oats at one another and at the priest in church. Later in the day, it is customary to invite or visit good friends for Christmas refreshments and fellowship. This is a public holiday in Poland and this year falls on a Tuesday.

ST. JOHN'S DAY, December 27th (Świętego Jana, Trzecie Święto, Trzeci Dzień Świąt) is celebrated with morning mass by the most devout Catholics who bring wine to church to be blessed at church. This commemorates the time St. John was served poisoned wine but blessed it and drank it with no ill effects. Perhaps a wine-tasting party could be held that day at the parish social hall.

POLISH NATIVITY PLAY (jasełka) is usually staged by children at church, school or a community hall. The play invariably tells the story of shepherds going to Bethlehem to honor the new-born Savior. Often the youngest shepherd has no gift to give so he sings or plays a musical instrument for Baby Jesus instead. A both easy and attractive way of holding it is to have the kids act out the scenes described in the kolędy being sung by a choir. That way they won’t forget their lines or get tongue-tied.

KING HEROD SKIT (Herody) is a short, humorous Christmas presentation which shows the Grim Reaper and Devil arguing over the wicked King Herod’s soul, as they tug at him with shouts of “He’s mine!” – “No, he's mine!” and chase after him when he tries to run away. This skit is usually too boisterous to present in church and is better suited to a club, school or community hall.

POLISH CAROLERS (kolędnicy) sing carols, recite poems of well-wishing and go Christmas trick-or-treating behind a star-bearer and crčche-bearer. The caroling party also includes an angel, devil, King Herod, the Three Kings (Magi), the Grim Reaper and such denizens of the Polish countryside as a peasant couple, Jewish merchant, soldier, priest and Gypsy. Such a presentation could take place at your parish, PNA lodge, community center and could bring cheer to nursing-home residents as well.

NEW YEAR'S EVE, December 31st (Sylwestra), ushers in the new year at balls, banquets, dinner-dances and house parties, where dancing begins with the traditional Polonaise. (This can be pre-rehearsed with those ball-goers not familiar with this elegant processional dance.) At the stroke of midnight, champagne corks pop and merry-makers kiss, hug and wish each other “Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku”, as the orchestra strikes up “Jak szybko mijają chwile”. Food drink and merriment is in abundance and the festivities often last till the crack of dawn.