Poland, Christmas in

Poland, Christmas in

The people of Poland celebrate Christmas with many old folk and religious customs. A number of Polish Christmas customs make reference to the Star of Bethlehem. Indeed, the star is Poland's most popular Christmas symbol.

Christmas Eve Fast

Traditionally, Poles, following Roman Catholic teachings, have fasted on December 24. The first meal of the day was a meatless supper. The Poles made up for this, however, by permitting the Christmas Eve meal to be composed of up to twelve different dishes. According to folk tradition, Poles did not sit down to eat on Christmas Eve until the first star appeared in the sky. Around sunset children dashed outdoors to scan the sky for the first star, eager to begin the evening's festivities. When sighted, the star was referred to as the Star of Bethlehem.

Oplatek

Upon sitting down to their Christmas Eve supper, many Polish families observe the old tradition of sharing an oplatek between them. These small white wafers resemble Roman Catholic communion wafers. The father bids family members to be at peace with one another and breaks the wafer. Everyone present eats a piece of the broken wafer. So significant is this custom that families may even send absent members a broken oplatek so that they, too, may partake of the blessed wafer.

Animals

Polish folk tradition acknowledges the important role played by animals at the birth of Jesus. One old custom recommends strewing straw on the Christmas Eve table, as a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable (see also Yule Straw). Another advises that crumbled oplatek wafers be fed to barn animals on Christmas Eve, as a way of including them in the Christmas blessing.

Christmas Dinner

In Poland the Christmas Eve supper has a special name. It is called Wigilia, which means "vigil" in Polish. It may also be called the "star supper." Traditional Christmas Eve foods include carp or pike, almond soup (made from almonds, raisins, rice, and milk), beet soup, cabbage, and other vegetable and grain dishes. Poppyseed cake, ginger cake, and other pastries may be served for dessert. Polish folk tradition suggests setting a place at the table for the Christ child as well as places for any absent family members. The unused place settings remind diners of the spiritual presence of these absent guests.

Gifts and Carols

Other Christmas Eve activities include singing kolendy, or Christmas carols, opening gifts, and attending Midnight Mass. Poland's gift bringer is known as the "Star Man." Polish folk tradition teaches that he brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. The star boys, a group of carolers dressed as characters from the Nativity story and carrying a star-shaped lantern before them, often accompany the Star Man. In past times the village priest sometimes dressed up as the Star Man and visited homes on Christmas Eve. This strict Star Man might quiz children on their knowledge of the Catholic catechism before handing out gifts. The star boys continue their activities throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, the days between Christmas and Epiphany. They appear on street corners and doorsteps, singing Christmas carols and hoping to be offered coins and treats in return.

Fortune-Telling

Christmas Eve, and indeed the entire Twelve Days of Christmas, were once thought to be especially powerful days for fortune-telling. Many superstitions and charms offered advice on how to read one's future during these days. For example, the events that take place on Christmas Eve were thought to set the pattern for the coming year. Therefore people tried to eat well, give and receive generously, and act kindly. One folk belief declared that a sunny Christmas Eve meant that the year to come would bring fair weather. By contrast, another folk belief stated that a warm Christmas foretold a chilly Easter. Numerous folk charms taught young girls ways to predict their marital futures on Christmas Eve. For example, girls could hide straws underneath the Christmas Eve tablecloth and draw them out randomly. A green straw signified marriage in the near future, a withered straw foretold a period of waiting, a yellow straw meant spinsterhood, and a very short straw warned of an early death (for asimilar custom, see Lithuania, Christmas in).

Christmas Trees, Nativity Scenes, Nativity Plays

Both Christmas trees and Nativity scenes may be found in Polish homes at Christmas time. The Polish city of Krakow sponsors a Nativity scene competition, which began in 1937 as a way of preserving an old folk tradition. Contestants in this competition must first make a model of Krakow's Wawel Cathedral and then place the manger scene on its doorstep. The winning entries are displayed in the Museum of Ethnography.

In past eras groups of boys performed Nativity plays, or szopka, during the Twelve Days of Christmas. These youngsters roamed towns and villages with homemade puppet theaters, performing folk plays loosely based on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. With the boys' help, the puppets not only acted, but also sang, the story. The stage and backdrop for the puppets were usually designed to represent the manger in which Christ was born, thus these performances served as animated Nativity scenes. In Krakow the backdrop for the puppet shows often depicted Wawel Cathedral.

Epiphany

In Poland the Christmas season ends with Epiphany on January 6. On this day people blessed their homes by writing the initials of the Three Kings, or Magi, over their front doors with blessed chalk. These initials, KMB, come from the names most often associated with them in folklore: Kaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Hubert, Maria, comp. Christmas Around the World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.

Web Site

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Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003