Cultural letter #11  Holiday traditions


Dear friends,


This year I learned, that is, really learned a few things about Polish holiday traditions.  I was talking about some of the Polish traditions in my English class and we had a little discussion about some of them.  The kids had some sections in their school books which also aided in this compilation.


First of all, let me give a disclaimer. Since Poland is VERY CATHOLIC, most of these traditions are somehow based in Catholicism--of which of course, we do not espouse.  Since I was brought up Protestant, there is "little to no" pull on me/us to celebrate Christmas here in a Polish Catholic custom. This cannot be said of a Pole.  Many of these things, I believe, while having Catholic origins, have become more secularized in their adaptation and many of the Poles don't think of them as being "Catholic" in origin and thus seem to be able to do them in clear conscience.


So, here goes.


The big evening for the celebration of Christmas is Christmas Eve and begins with the big meal, which is "wigilia" (pronounced "Vigeelia"). (This word is similar to our word "vigil" and has to do with setting up a watch.) This meal is supposed to have 12 courses, completely meatless, but with several fish dishes.  It is not to begin until after the first star comes out in the evening (or in our case, afternoon), sky. This can be any time after 4 pm.  They place an empty dinner plate at the table in case a guest pops in. If you happen to stop by, you will probably be asked to sit down and share with them.  I'm under the understanding that they are not supposed to drink alcohol this evening as they are still under the Catholic ban on that kind of stuff (which is why no meat--only fish--sort of a sacrifice to God until after the Christ Child is born.).


When they set the table for the meal, they use a white tablecloth and under the tablecloth they put a little bit of hay to represent the manger/stable where Christ was born.  (I thought that was sweet--it can be some dried grass from the side of the road.)


At the end of this meal, they have a little white thin wafer that looks almost see through which they have to purchase from the priest or nun, with an imprint of Mary in the wafer, and they break off a little bit and wish you "all the best" while you are supposed to break off a piece of theirs and say the same to them.  (I was VERY uncomfortable with this while at the school --our children's classes had  a "wigilia" which meant just fruit, candy and cakes).


After the dinner, the kids are supposed to leave the room and Santa Claus comes (St. Nicholas) and the presents are put under the tree and the kids come back in and they open them.  (This seems to be much nicer to Santa Claus than making him come down the chimney--he just comes in when the parents are ready for him.)  During this evening, they say that the animals can talk with human voices.  (But they won't do it when any people are around.)


Then, they stay up and talk all evening and at 12 pm they are to go out and walk to church (This church being, of course, the Catholic church), and attend the midnight mass which celebrates the birth of the Christ child.  Many Poles don't do this, however, as they go to bed instead.  I was told by one young lady who said she could just stay home and pray in her heart.   This is the most important evening for everyone.  The rest of the holiday is kind of like "anticlimactic".


December 25, they more or less take it easy, and sleep in a little (after staying up until after midnight, or 2 am, because they went to church at midnight, I guess you can understand that).  Then, they eat a breakfast and maybe get together with family again. If family has travelled to stay with you, they are probably still there.  Sometimes they will take the time to go to a different family to celebrate, but it won't be "Wigilia" and will probably include some meat (for those who can afford it).  Many of the Protestant groups have a morning service similar to a regular Church service, at about the same time.  Then, they will go home and later it the day have a nice big dinner together--just sitting around talking. The Catholics have put a "ban" on work on that day. (I read that--"there is to be NO WORK" on Christmas--excluding work in the kitchen of course).


Here are some things taken from a book I have, written by a Pole, --in English, so the word choice is hers--

" The day preceding Christmas Eve is a unique one. It is believed that everything that might happen on it might influence the whole year to come. Much attention, for instance, is paid to the person who first enters the house and if it is a man, he ensures welfare to all members of the family. Some people say that if you ask for food on that day, you will hungry throughout the year."


"it is believed that washing hands with silver coins in the morning may bring money.  On that day carol-singers dressed as an angel, a devil, King Herod or Death visit people's houses.  They sing carols and play various scenes from the Bible."


Then, also, December 26 is ANOTHER holiday--they call it the "second day" of Christmas. On this day, many will once again go to someone's house and just sit around and talk and eat.  I asked an older lady why they celebrated this day as a holiday--after all, it isn't December 25. She laughed and said that she doubted anyone really even knew why--but just that it has always been that way in Poland as long as she could remember.  Her answer was that "Poles like to celebrate."  They may take this day kind of quiet for their own families, or once again, get together with another part of the family, sit around, talk and watch tv.


taken from this book..."The second day of Christmas is spent in a different way.  People pay and receive visits, spend much time at the table talking or singing carols. From that day the Carnival begins."


The Carnival season is sort of a wild season. They have been told not to "drink, marry, or have discos" for a period of about a month before Christmas--in preparation of your hearts for the coming of the Christ child.  Then, after Christmas is over, the restrictions are lifted.


New Years is called "Sylvester."  People set off fireworks and have parties--big ones.  Some are at their homes and some are like in the Old Town of Warsaw--there are signs placed at various places that show that you are invited to a "sylvester party" for a certain amount of money. This year I saw them for about 100 zl (here in our part of Warsaw), which is about $25.  Not really cheap if you only bring about $150 a month.  The fireworks can be anytime from the evenings of the 30th until about the 2nd. We heard and saw them for about 4 evenings straight. But most of them are between 7 and midnight on the 31st.  People can buy them and set them off in your own yard--no restrictions on them.


Our kids had to return to school on January 2, which was today. This seems very fast to us, but coming up in about 2 1/2 weeks they will be let out for 2 full weeks for a winter break.  Christmas break for our kids from Polish school was only 1 1/2 weeks long.


When we first came to Poland, we had a hard time finding a Christmas tree until about the week before Christmas. Now, they are available about the 10th of December, and even earlier if you want to pay big bucks for imported trees (i.e. from Germany)    We were able to get a "real" Christmas tree for about $10 this year--which, is a little cheaper than last year, for which we were thankful.  It doesn't look like a Douglas fir or anything, but it is sufficient--Polish trees tend to be significantly cheaper than the imported ones, which tend to be fuller and prettier.


This year I saw Christmas decorations for sale in early to mid November--whereas the first year we were here, I had a hard time finding them that early.  This year I saw people decorating earlier than before also.  The first year the twins (Aga and Beata) were with us and we decorated our tree on the 15th--they asked us if we felt "weird" that we had decorated "so early."  (I just laughed and said "No!" I didn't feel like I had decorated that early.)


So, that's it for this year's Holiday traditions. I'm sure there is more I could say.  Maybe some other time.


In Warsaw, Poland,

Becky Petersen for us all