Polish Christmas FAQ
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel
Q: What is the purpose of the large square communion wafer Polish people eat on Christmas?
VICTORIA BENSON (Baltimore, MD)
A: Although similar in texture and taste to the communion host, this white Christmas wafer bearing imprinted Nativity motifs is known as "oplatek". It gets its name from the Latin "oblata" (something offered) which first went into German as "Oblate" (wafer) and finally got Polonized into "oplatek". Poles share symbolic bits of the "oplatek" before sitting down to the "Wigilia" or Christmas Eve supper as a gesture of love, reconciliation and spiritual inter-communion towards their nearest of kin. This custom was already known in the 18th century and now has become all but universal in Polish homes.
Q: I heard Polish people put hay on their tables at Christmas time. What is the significance of that custom?
BILL (WILLIAM) MAZUR (Sterling Heights, MI)
A: A handful of hay is usually strewn over the bare table-top before being covered with a pure-white table-cloth. That is a memento of Baby Jesus' humble bed of hay in the stable of Bethlehem. That is but one example of how much more Nativity-related the Polish Wigilia is compared with Christmas celebrations in many other countries.
Q: Do people in Poland decorate their Christmas trees with those gorgeous hand-blown glass ball ornaments imported from Poland? You can get them in this country but they are very expensive.
ANGELA KAMISKI (Chicopee, MA)
A: Some do, some don't. In Poland they are not "imported from Poland" but locally produced, however, they still tend to be on the pricey side. I have not seen too many trees in Polish homes decorated exclusively with that type of ornament. But you do run into them in stores, restaurants and other public places. Most of the annual output of the glassworks that produce such ornaments is exported to Western Europe and North America.
Q: Back when we lived in a Polish neighborhood I remember my "busia" writing something over the doorway after New Year's Day. Does that custom still exist and what does it mean?
CAROL ANDREWS , (Warren, MI)
A: On the Feast of the Three Kings, commonly known in English as the Epiphany (Jan. 6th), chalk is blessed in Polish churches, and the faithful use it to inscribe the initials of the Three Kings (in Polish traditionally spelled Kasper, Melchior and Baltazar) and the current New Year over the entrance to their homes. It comes out as K+M+B 2007. This was originally a prayerful plea to bless the home and protect it from danger. During the years of foreign occupation (the partitions of 1792-1918 and the post-World War II communist era) it indicated the homes of patriotic Polish Catholics unafraid to stand up for their faith. The custom is still widely practiced in Poland. In Polonia, the message it can convey is that this is the home of Polish Americans proud of their Polish Catholic heritage.
Q: I saw a picture of Polish carolers dressed up as devils, the grim reaper, angels, kings and other such characters. How did that tradition originate?
WANDA THOMPSON (Niles, IL)
A: Back in the Middle Ages, most of the faithful were illiterate, so to help illustrate the Good Word, Gospel stories were acted out by monks and seminarians in what were known as mystery plays. In time, these became somewhat boisterous with actors dressed as the devil and Death chasing King Herod around the chancel and the congregation loudly guffawing. Eventually the Church forbade such spectacles as unseemly in a house of worship, so the players took to the streets as roving masqueraders and puppeteers. That is the origin of the Polish custom of caroler-masqueraders making their house-to-house rounds during the Christmas season.
Q: Some people that just came from Poland told me Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day. How could the day before be more important than the main event?
PATRICIA WALLACE (Chicago, IL)
A: It depends how you define the "main event". Since Christmas is the celebration of Jesus' birth, the main event is Midnight Mass, symbolizing the moment Christ as born, and Christmas Eve provides the spiritual and dramatic build-up. In Polish tradition, everything important happens on Dec. 24th. Wigilia focuses on one's immediate family circle, includes the all-important oplatek-sharing tradition, features other once-a-year customs, beliefs and foods as well as "koledy" (carol) singing and culminates in family Midnight Mass. Everything that happens afterwards is less important and actually anticlimactic.
Q: Our neighbor claims the Polish word for Santa Claus is "Gwiazdor". I thought it was "Swiety Mikolaj".
THERESA NOWAK (Parma Heights, OH)
A: You are both right. "Gwiazdor" (from "Gwiazdka", another name for Christmas in Polish) was the Polish translation of the German "Weihnachtsmann" (Christmas Man or Father Christmas). In the 19th century, this secularized version of Saint Nicholas was strongly promoted by the Prussian Protestant regime in an attempt to de-Catholicize Christmas and de-Polonize the Polish lands under Prussian occupation. Most of America's earliest Polish pioneers came from such Prussian-occupied areas as Wielkopolska, Sielsia and Pomerania and brought the name with them. But Swiety Mikolaj is the proper Polish name for Saint Nicholas, a kindly old bishop who visits kids on his feast day, December 6th.
Q: At school we were assigned to write about holiday celebrations in other lands. An exchange student who just came from Poland told me fish was featured on the Polish Christmas table? Don't they eat turkey and things?
TRACY O'BRIAN (Queens, NY)
A: The Christmas Eve supper ("wieczerza wigilijna") is by tradition meatless, so various fish dishes feature prominently on the table. Turkey, roast goose, pork and veal roasts, ham, sausage and Poland's national meat, mushroom and sauerkraut dish known as "bigos" are enjoyed during the two days of Christmas (Dec. 25-26) and on other occasions throughout the Christmas-New Year's-Three Kings season, but not on Wigilia.
Q: Didn't Poland get the Christmas tree custom from Germany?
ANDREW MEYER, (Milwaukee, WI)
A: Yes, and so did everybody else. The Christmas tree did not catch on in England, for instance, until the 19th century, when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German-born husband, had one set up at Buckingham Palace.
Q: Is it true that Polish people have an extra place-setting at the table at Christmas time? If so, what is it supposed to signify?
LYNN SIKORA (Cheektowaga, NY)
A: It is a tradition to set an extra place at the Christmas Eve table. It may be set in honor of the One celebrating His birthday, Baby Jesus, or to symbolize a family member unable to attend in person or perhaps one who has gone on to his or her reward. Sometimes the deceased person's portrait is displayed at the place-setting. The empty place at table may be offered to the proverbial wandering stranger or to a lonely neighbor who might otherwise have the spend this beautiful evening all alone.
Q: I heard there were all kinds of superstitions connected with Christmas like pulling straws to see who will the first to get married, barnyard animals speaking in human voices at midnight and water turning to wine in wells? Does anybody really believe such nonsense?
TOM DELANEY (Providence, RI)
A: Rather than superstitions, these customs fall into the category of Christmas lore. They served as tall tales and games which consolidated the family's sense of togetherness and continuity with previous and future generations. Someone may say these were quaint, folksy or corny, but I still think it beats spending Christmas Eve glued to the TV screen or Internet monitor! By the way, does any American believe the groundhog can really predict the end of winter, that a rabbit foot brings good luck or that fathers should turn their daughters over to the groom at the altar like a piece of property? In Polish tradition, the bride and groom walk up and down the aisle together.
Q: I got into a good-natured argument with a member of our Polish-American club who said there should be 12 dishes at "Wigilia". I contend there should be an odd number: 5, 7, 9 or 11. Who is right?
ED BARAN (Pittsburgh, PA)
A: You both are. Some areas uphold the tradition of a dozen different dishes in honor of the Twelve Apostles or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Elsewhere, the odd-number tradition is practiced. I was informed by the prominent Polish ethnographer, Professor Barbara Ogrodowska, that sometimes different homes in the same village adhere to opposing customs. One reason is that outsiders often marry into a family and bring their customs with them.
Q: Someone told me recently that people in Poland hang put up their Christmas trees upside down. Is that another one of those lame-brained anti-Polish jokes?
GAIL KOWALCZYK (Oshkosh, WI)
A: It might sound like one, but it does contain a grain of truth. Before the Christmas tree became widespread in Poland during the 20th century, it was the custom to decorate peasant cottages, especially in southern Poland, with a "podniczka" (upcreeper) or "sad" (orchard). This was nothing more than the point of an evergreen suspended point-side-down from the rafters. Sometimes it was simply an evergreen branch. These were decorated with home-made ornaments, fashioned from straw, paper or Christmas wafers ("oplatek"), as well as sweets, gingerbread hearts and "marcypan" (almond-paste) figures. But a whole Christmas tree was never suspended from the ceiling.
Q: I heard Christmas in Poland doesn't end on December 26th like in our country, but on Groundhog Day. Is that true?
ANGELA DI GIULIO (Orange, CA)
A: Yes and no. The Christmas season begins at the start of Advent (the turn of December) and stretches all the way to February 2nd. However, in Poland that day is not associated with hibernating rodents but is celebrated as Candlemas Day. That is the feast day on which Polish Catholics bless candles in church in honor of the Blessed Virgin, who gave birth to "the Light of the World".