“What has become a habit let it remain a habit, and this, what was, what we heard from our fathers, or we have seen already by ourselves, pass to those who will come after us; remembering that where the past was, there, also, the future will be…” Leon Potocki 1854.
Christmas is one of the most wonderful times during the whole year, and the most important moment during this time is one night – Christmas Eve. We call it Wigilia in Poland. White snow outside the window sparkles with frost and the dark sky has more stars than ever. Among them is the most important one, which we can see as the first star this evening, letting us know that in Bethlehem, as over 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ is born… such a little baby, but so important for the whole world. Every year during this special night, happiness is with us, as it was with our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents many years ago. Besides special feelings, we have also many traditions which tie us firmly to our ancestors, and which will tie future generations to us. Thanks to these traditions, we know who we are.
There is an unusual excitement this day from early morning. So many things must be done on time: the house must be cleaned very carefully, the dining room (in the villages it was just the kitchen) prepared, the Christmas tree brought in and decorated, and all the dishes prepared. Moreover, all day long we have to (or rather our ancestors had to) be very careful, because everything that happens on this day is the subject of fortune’telling. These traditions are not as well known today, but that is a very good reason to recall them. Just after the morning prayer, you had to wash (in order to be healthy next year) using a basin with a coin in it, and while washing, you had to touch the coin (in order to be rich next year). Next, you should apply garlic to your teeth (for your health again). It was not allowed to borrow or lend anything to anybody (to be sure that nothing will be lacking in your house during the next year of course). Very important to our forefathers was the belief that on this day souls visit their houses, often in the form of a wanderer or animal, so you had to be very careful and not harm them. All activities connected with threads (sewing, knitting) as well as chopping, sweeping in the direction of the door, and even sitting down on a chair without first blowing it off (it was possible that there was a soul on it) were forbidden.
Next you had to prepare ‘the dining room’. Straw was spread on the floor (to make the room similar to the place where the Child was born), hay was put under the white tablecloth (because the Baby was laid on straw), and in each corner of the room were sheaves of four kinds of cereals: wheat, barley, rye and oats (to ensure rich crops next year). Under the table something heavy had to be placed, and during the Christmas Eve supper you should put your legs on it (to make them strong and healthy).
Decorating a standing Christmas tree (in the way we know it) is quite a new tradition in PolandChoinka (from the beginning of 20th century). In old Poland we decorated a so-called ‘podłaźniczka’. It was the top of a fir or spruce tree or just a branch of a pine hung under the ceiling. The branch was decorated with apples, nuts, and ‘światy’ (a decoration made of a piece of colored wafer). Podłaźniczka was a sign of well-being and the privilege of hanging them up belonged to the host.
The table had to be ready before the first star was seen. It was really important to put everything needed on it, because it was forbidden for anybody to leave their place until the supper was ended. The poor soul who tried to disobey this rule was supposed to die soon.
It was also necessary to have a free place for somebody unexpected (in the 19th century, this might be a family member in prison in Siberia).
The next important thing was the number of the people around the table, it had to be an even number. An odd number was an omen of bad luck (the worst was 13 – the number of men during the Last Supper). To avoid misfortune, in rich houses one of the servants was invited to the table if necessary.
In contrast to the number of people, the number of dishes on the table had to be odd. In peasant houses, five or seven dishes were prepared; nobles had nine, and aristocrats 11 or 13. In rich houses they also used to prepare 12 dishes from fish. Today in each Polish kitchen we still count our dishes and prepare 12, each with fish.
In Poland we begin the supper, as our ancestors did, by sharing opłatek (a wafer or bread that has been blessed by a priest) and wishing each other good health and happiness for the coming year. After this ceremony, all could sit down around the table according to age: the first to sit was the eldest but this was not because of politeness. There was a belief that family members should and would die in the same order as they sat down (I am curious about the feelings of the oldest person ;)).
The dishes were eaten from one common bowl standing in the center of the table underneath which a piece of opłatek was put. Everyone had to at least taste each dish. When each bowl was empty it was another occasion for predictions, if the wafer was stuck to the bottom of the bowl it meant that the next year’s crops would be abundant for whatever had been served in that bowl.
What was eaten on Christmas Eve? Tradition says: czerwony barszcz (beetroot soup) or mushroom soup (in rich houses the delicacy was almond soup), bigos (a dish made of sauerkraut and mushrooms and usually also with sausage or meat, but not when prepared as a Christmas Eve dish), millet groats with prunes, peas or beans, pasta with poppy seed, fried or boiled fish, a compote made of desiccated pears and berries, kisiel made of oats (a jelly type dessert made with potato starch), kutia (a sweet dish made of wheat, honey, nuts and raisins), gingerbread, and at the end apples and nuts. Of course, dishes differed depending on the region of the country and the wealth of the home.
After supper there was time for gifts and fortune-telling. Our forefathers took pieces of hay out from under the tablecloth (if it was green it meant that they would marry soon), tried to ‘read’ a good year from the sheaves left in the corners, and they guessed the future by listening to echoes of their voices (the direction from which the echo was coming pointed the direction from which future fiancé would come), and even counting pales in a fence.
At midnight all people went to church to welcome the Child during Christmas midnight mass (Pasterka), but first they had to ask all souls to leave the house. This ‘operation’ was as noisy as possible. All things that could be useful in making noise, such as firecrackers, pots, stools, or tables were used. There was only one rule – the noisier the better. After the solemn mass, men wandered from one home to another visiting family and neighbors and wishing them the best. (Click here to listen to Polish Highlanders’ Christmas Wishes – performed by Trebunie Tutki). As thanks, hosts treated them with something alcoholic. So the most beautiful and longest night in the year was spent loudly, happily and really not soberly.
The Christmas Eve of our forefathers meant white snow, the dark sky speckled with stars, a white tablecloth and wafer, everyone wearing their best clothes, the home smelling clean and of gingerbread and all the delicacies made for only the one meal, and carols. The most wonderful among all songs, from dignified through coarse to familiar. It is as though the Child was born somewhere here in Poland. In their lyrics there is our Polish snow, frost, sheepskin coats, and warm hats. We can read from them a piece of the lives of our ancestors. The contemporary Christmas Eve is still a ‘magic’ day, although there are not as many superstitions. We still get together, forget all our worries for a while, and smile at each other.
With special thanks to Nancy Maciolek Blake for valuable comments and English proofreading.
Polskie Tradycje Świą teczne by Hanna Szymanderska, Warszawa 2003
Listen to the best, traditional Polish Christmas carols: