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Popular Piety: Christmas Customs in Poland

Friday, December 27, 2013
The Polish culture is very rich in Christmas customs. A lot of them have their own history as well as their symbolic, religious and national meanings. Some of them have changed and even disappeared, but Christmas is still very beautiful and profound time. In Poland we start celebrate Christmas at Christmas Eve. This day is called in Polish 'Wigilia' and this name comes from Latin 'vigilare' which means waiting, because we wait for the birth of Jesus. This day has very family character. In the evening there is a supper which starts when in the sky will appear the first star. This is the symbol of the Bethlehem Star when the wise men from the East saw the star in the sky and this star led them to place where Jesus was born.
At the beginning of supper there is a prayer for God's grace and welfare for the members of the family. After that is read the passage from the Gospel about Jesuss' birth. Then we share the Christmas Eve wafer, which is a kind of bread having very similar consistency to hosts used during the Eucharist. The Hebrew word 'Bethlehem' means 'House of Bread'. The Polish name of this wafer is 'opłatek' and it comes from the Latin word 'oblatum' what means 'an offering'. The head of family distrubutes a piece to each person at the table. Then he breaks the wafer and wishes each member of the family all the best. Then the other family members greet one another in the same way. The breaking of bread is a symbol of charity and unity, as well as forgiveness.

We put some hay under the tablecloth, because Jesus was born in a stable. On the table there is one plate more than persons in the family. This plate is for unexpected guest, because on this day no one should be alone. We also light candles. Traditionally on the table there are 12 dishes and everybody should taste all of them during the Christmas Eve supper. Because of the special character of the day there is a traditional fast. One of the most important dishes is one of fish species called in Polish 'karp' and there is also a beetroot soup with little dumplings called in Poland 'barszcz z uszkami'. There is dried fruit compote to drink and after the main course there are cakes.
Before Christmas we decorate the Christmas tree and under it after Christmas Eve supper there are presents to be unwrapped. We also sing Christmas carols. In the Polish culture Christmas carols are part of the national tradition and there is a great collection of various Christmas songs. Very important is the Midnight Mass called in Poland 'Pasterka' and this name comes from the Polish word means 'shepherds' who were the first to greet baby Jesus. In this special night animals speak with a human voice and those that were in a stable when Jesus was born genuflect at midnight. Christmas Eve starts the celebration of Christmas and in Poland there are two Christmas days, 25th and 26th of December, this time we spend we our families.

Paweł Szylak OP


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