Christmas Traditions and Customs

As Advent a time of peace and introspection comes to an end, the joyous celebration of Christmas, the most family centered Polish holiday begins.
The earliest recorded descriptions of Christmas celebrations date back to the 3d Century.  By the beginning of the 4th Century, the Church had designated the time near the winter solstice, December 24 – 25, as the date of the birth of Christ.  For Poles, Christmas is associated with many customs and traditions which have over the centuries, enriched and embellished this very special holiday, known for its beauty, joy and warmth.
The day before Christmas has a very special meaning for Polish families and its observance first became a custom in Poland in the 18th Century.  By the 20th Century it was an established tradition, widely celebrated and revered as a very important and sacred day.  The most important part of the day is the Christmas Eve supper.  The renown Polish writer, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz living in the years 1757 – 1841, recorded in his memoirs : “Christmas Eve dinner was celebrated in the same way all over Poland; three kinds of soup were served along with kutia (a dish of cooked wheat or rice or porridge, mixed with poppy seed, honey and sweetened fruits and nuts), beets shredded with horseradish, a fish such as cod or carp and  poppy seed and honey cakes. Under the tablecloth, the table was covered in hay and in each corner of the dining room stood haystacks”. The family sat down to supper, as is the custom to this day, only after the first star appeared in the sky. The supper began with prayers and the breaking and sharing of a wafer called “Oplatek”, which is a symbol of peace, love and unity. According to the old tradition in sharing the wafer with our families and friends, we forgive each other for our transgressions. We break in ourselves, that which is so difficult to break off within one’s self – pride, anger and hatred.
This wafer is a symbolic food which strengthens the bonds of love.  It brings forth a deeper religious and holiday spirit into our hearts and homes.
On Christmas Eve no one should feel left alone or forgotten, and thus it is a custom to invite those who live alone to join the family. An extra place is always set at the Christmas Eve supper table for the unexpected guest. Christmas Eve is the most beautiful holiday of the year because into the magic of this night, are woven the family, religious and national traditions of Poles. This is the evening where the Polish spirit is united with its deep religious beliefs and love of country.
Today it would be difficult to imagine Christmas without a tree, but the Christmas tree was unknown in old time Poland. It was a custom which first came from Germany in the 18th Century. According to legend, Martin Luther, one wintry, starry, December night noticed a small pine tree bathed by the light of the moon. Enchanted by this vision, he had the tree cut down the next day and put into his home where it was decorated and could be enjoyed by all. Christmas trees were at first, decorated with handmade decorations; then dried fruits, cookies, cakes and multicolored candles became the custom. In recent times, manufactured baubles and electric lighting have replaced old time hand-made decorations, sweets and candles.
A most pleasant custom of the Polish Christmas Eve is the exchanging of gifts. This is an old custom going back to ancient times. Gifts which family members prepared for one another as well as those received from and given to friends and neighbors soon found their way to ‘under the Christmas tree’. Today, presents under the tree signify ties not only to family members, but to friends and acquaintances. It is a way of expressing thoughtfulness and caring about one another.
Midnight Mass is a large part of the Christmas Eve celebration as well. “Pasterka” as the midnight mass is known, is a holy Mass held at midnight in remembrance of the shepherds who came to Bethlehem to see the Baby Jesus. The Mass became a custom among Poles during the times of the Polish Congressional Kingdom (beginning in the 19th Century).  It became so firmly rooted in Poland’s traditions, that even during the Occupation of WW II when curfews forbade anyone to be about at night, midnight masses were regularly observed and attended.
Once again this Christmas Eve, we will hear the ringing of church bells calling the faithful to midnight mass. This year as every year, where the Polish language is spoken and Polish hearts beat, Polish Christmas carols will once again be heard.  Although there is no Catholic nation on earth that does not have its own Christmas songs, none are so rich in text, melody and emotion as Polish Christmas carols. They come from the depths of the Polish peoples’ hearts and spirits, and are filled with reverence, faith in and love of God and country. They are a national and religious treasure – something that belongs to every Pole. Let us sing them in our churches and in our homes!
Let us keep our Polish Christmas traditions alive for they have grown out of our faith. They are such a large part of a culture that has created entire generations of Poles. Let us not deny these exciting emotions and warm memories that we ourselves experienced as children to our children and grandchildren. Let us never forget that from the spirit of hope, faith and love arise all things true, beautiful and  good .

Wanda Bartosiewicz
Translated  by Zofia Wiœniewski

Forum, 12/2003