Christmas Traditions in Poland

Christmas is called in Polish God's Birth. And this is for a good reason.

The birth of Jesus Christ more than two thousand ago was a fundamental event in the history of mankind. So fundamental that the time is counted from this event on. It was accompanied by unusual signs - a virgin has conceived and bare a son, of whom the angel said, it would be the Son of the Most High God. She gave birth to him in the stable, which soon was visited by the shepherds, who talked about the signs in the sky, which they saw in the middle of the night. The temple prophets announced the great things about him. The kings of the East paid homage, and Herod wanted to chase him as the greatest threat to him. But it was nothing compared to what was to come. Increased awareness of people till they confessed: "Truly this was the Son of God."

Indeed, there is reason to celebrate the Birth of God. This Day brings us closer to Heaven. And the Heaven is associated with an eternal banquet (see. Texts of the Old Testament). A banquet has to be prepared. Hence the pre-Christmas bustle: cleaning, laundry, festive clothes, shopping, cooking, preparing food, decorating Christmas tree, building a crib. Although depending upon the timing, conditions, abundance of details look different, they share one thing, that is: the whole house is clearly looking differently from the workday.

The “crib” is a presentation of the scene of the Nativity and may be as complicated as the one depicted on the accompanying picture (a work of folk artist Wantoch Rekowski, who made the whole scene of one material: sheaf-binder string). But it may be as simple as a miniature crib or manger filled with real hay on which a figurine of newborn baby Jesus is lying. It is usually accompanied by figurines of Mary and Joseph, watching the baby. More elaborate “cribs” will incorporate figurines of an oxen and a donkey, and one or more sheep. Inventive children will add more livestock they know about, like hens, geese, a goat, a horse. Further figurines belong also to Christmas tradition. They are first of all the shepherds, carrying some gifts. And around the Three-Kings’ Day the figurines of the Three Kings accompanied by a group of camels or elephants is added to the scene. The three wise men carry gifts: gold, frankincense and mirth. The figurines are usually made of clay, or are just purchased. But children’s invention has no limits: figurines are cut out from paper, or even constructed from lego blocks. The latter ones are frequently used to create an imagination of the living place of the Holy Family, a stable, or a barn, or a cave, sometimes a poor village hut.

The crib is placed usually close to the Christmas tree which is decorated with electric candle lights, baubles, Saint Nicolas figurines, angels and other glass ornaments, chains, artificial snow made of wadding. In many regions sweets and little red apples are hung on the tree also. The tree is crowned with a Bethlehem Star. The Christmas tree recalls somehow the paradise lost by the first parents, Adam and Eve and expresses on the one hand a longing after this beautiful and peaceful place and on the other hand it reminds us that Jesus Christ came to Earth to reopen the gates of paradise for the mankind. The tree itself is called in Polish “choinka” and the name suggests it is a pine tree, at least in Kashubian language. But in fact it is a (green or silver) spruce or a fir. Though most people prefer a natural tree, many environmentally conscious ones purchase the more expensive artificial Christmas trees that can be used later for dozens of years. The natural trees give the advantage of the forest fragrance but there exist nowadays resin smelling perfumes that can be used instead.

Even the little children know that Christmas Eve is a fast time. There is no lunch - it's just bread with butter and jam, milk, oatmeal. Finally, we sit at the Christmas table as soon as the little ones will see the first star in the sky. TV stops, because the center is the Lord God, and the whole family around him. We read profound words from the Gospel

"[4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, [5] To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. [6] And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. [7] And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. [8] And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock. [9] And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. [10] And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: [11] For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. [12] And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. [13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: [14] Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. '" (Luke 2: 4-14).

After the reading of the Gospel as a sign of peace and mutual goodwill whole family breaks the wafer and makes Christmas wishes for all the persons present. Then the ceremonial Christmas Eve supper starts. Dishes not present on the table for the whole year appear. Carp or mushroom soup, cooked carp, fried carp, carp in jelly, cabbage with peas or one with mushrooms or one with plums, carp baked in the cream, fish in a Greek manner, salmon in puff pastry, vegetable salad, kutia (boiled wheat with poppy seeds and honey), ginger cake, poppy-seed cake, baked apples, cranberry kissel, prunes compote. (Some people count as dishes also grated horseradish in cream, pumpkin in vinegar or plums in vinegar, consumed together with other food). Wonderful dishes, but all meatless, all fasting. Each region of Poland has something to add or to drop from this sample list of Vigil dishes (pierogi [Polish dumplings] with cheese, or cabbage, or dried plums etc.). There should be 12 of them, as there were 12 Apostles. Also, tableware, table cloth etc. is not what is used on a daily basis.

After the supper the event comes which is always awaited by children. We commemorate Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who bestowed gifts upon the poor of his diocese.

When all have enjoyed the received gifts, we start singing Christmas carols.

Carols depict historical event (Mt 1, Mt 2, Luke 2), when "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The world was unfriendly to people then as it is now. But how then people saw reason to be happy, so now let us do: "The day of Birth of the Lord is the day of joy " let "proclaim the joy everywhere" because "Christ is born to liberate us " and "This is the Jesus from heaven who will take us into the skies if we only love him by the whole heart." Just think of how much the world has changed for the better thanks to the true (Catholic) Christianity. Think, how we can calmly look at the hostile attacks of our enemies when we trust in the hope that we put in the true God. Though often our human forces are not able to oppose them, yet in critical situations, we can see the finger of God, punishing unrepentant sinners and liberating the righteous people from the oppression.

Whoever has the health and strength, at midnight goes to the midnight (shepherd) mass. Others will go to Mass in the morning.

Solemn atmosphere is continued and strengthened during the proper Christmas Feast. But now it is already the full celebration. On the Christmas Eve we awaited the Nativity of Christ. During Christmas we actually celebrate the Birth. On the table there are also meat dishes: salads, pies, chicken in raisins, duck stuffed with apples, meatloaf, and plenty of other names of which a mere mortal can not remember. Anything that is required by regional or family tradition. If you live in the same town or village as your relatives do, you visit each other. Sometimes such visits are governed by an adopted ritual order.

When celebrating, we think about God. Both in the first and in the second day of Christmas, we go to church, sing carols with whole family. When we do not sing, carols flow from CDs or cassettes. Prayers before the meal are especially solemn. We pray for our parents, grandparents, for children who have left the nest, maybe for grandchildren, all relatives, living and dead.

Although officially Christmas lasts only two days (because the communist regime abolished the traditional holiday of the Third Day of Christmas, replacing it with "free Saturday"), the traditional Christmas Period extends for the next two weeks until Epiphany, when the nativity scene is updated with extra figurines of Sages from the East. During Christmas Period we commemorate the massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem by Herod - the Holy Innocents, who shed their blood for Jesus, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Mother of God Feast and the Holy Name of Jesus Feast. Although one has to go to work, we always find a few spare moments to sit down at the Christmas tree, in front of the crib and to sing carols and teach the younger generation what a great event for the world was Birth of God.

We continue enjoying Christmas in the so-called Christmas Time which we celebrate till the Holy Virgin Candlemas, February 2 (Presentation of the Lord), singing carols every day. In that time, the parishioners are visited by their pastors, concerts of carols are organized in the churches and children stage in the churches or schools so-called "jase³ka" (Nativity play).

Christmas is perceived as a feast of the family. Why? Polish philosophy professor W³adys³aw Tatarkiewicz (1886 - 1980), author of the famous book “History of Philosophy” stated about Jesus Christ: He must have been a God because no human being of those times would have ideas like he had. Neither in Palestine, nor in Roman Empire nor elsewhere. In that era, neither women nor children were considered human beings. They were sold, purchased, stolen, mistreated, misused, sacrificed to daemons. It was Jesus Christ that proclaimed the indissolvable marriage, humanity of women and children and even set innocence of children as an example for other to follow. Last not least he ordered children to support their parents financially when they are old. Also the history of Jesus’ life was setting an example. A pregnant woman (Mary) was called a mother in the Gospel declaring wrong the abortion practices. By Divine intervention the marriage of Saint Mary and Saint Joseph was kept intact. Saint Joseph protected the life of his adopted son against the state power.

So the birth of Jesus Christ was a turning point in the history of the institution of the family. The family got a fundamentally new, sacred status. Hence Christmas is legitimately considered as the most important family feast.

Another impulse for strengthening the status of the family institution came from the explicit change in celebrating feasts that the Christianity brought. The pagans, for example Greeks, celebrated feasts devoted to their goddesses by prostitution and drunkenness. In a Christian nation nobody would have the idea to celebrate say Christmas by committing adultery. And in Poland, over 1/3 of adult population does not drink alcohol during Christmas (and in fact the whole year). So the families living Christian faith enjoy a better life not only during Christmas but always.

See also Weird beliefs related to Christmas