Old Polish Christmas traditions
Polish Christmas traditions origin
When we say “Christmas in Poland”, we usually think of “traditional Christmas”. But do we actually know where the current traditions come from, how they evolved and how many of them have remained unchanged until today? Contrary to popular belief, Polish Christian symbolism abounds in numerous customs and superstitions which are not originally associated with Christianity. When we say “Christmas in Poland”, we usually think of “traditional Christmas”. But do we actually know where the current traditions come from, how they evolved and how many of them have remained unchanged until today? Contrary to popular belief, Polish Christian symbolism abounds in numerous customs and superstitions which are not originally associated with Christianity.
The first records mentioning Christmas celebration in Poland date back to 25 December 354. This day was not chosen by mistake. It was supposed to supersede a different Slavic feast called the Birthday of the Invincible Sun to celebrate the Mitre god.
Christmas is sometimes called The Great Feast or the Nuptial Feast. The word “nuptial” refers to “nuptials” which was a Slavic wedding custom. The 25th day of December had in fact been celebrated as the day of nuptials, until the Christianity appeared on Polish soil.
Today, Christmas is the first day commencing the entire cycle of celebrations and services related to church customs praising Christ’s birth. They begin on 25 December and last until the Epiphany on 6 January. In the majority of Polish homes, the festivities begin informally already on 6 December, as eager children await their presents brought by Santa Claus and left under the Christmas tree.
In the past, Christmas in Poland used to be a significant event which is proved by the fact that the preparations for it would begin as soon as in the summertime! People would pick mushrooms in nearby forests and fruits in orchards in order to later dry them for wintertime. They would also stock up on honey, flour, nuts, herrings, as well as game meat. As it was strictly forbidden to carry out any household activities on the Christmas Eve, all works had to be completed on the preceding day. On 24 December, fishermen would go out fishing at first light. Maids in well-off families and housewives along with their daughters in less wealthy households would prepare the dishes for the following day.
Festivity preparations also had a spiritual aspect. During Advent, a rorate mass (dawn mess) would be held every morning. According to the legends, Advent used to begin as early as on 11 November, the Saint Martin’s day. That day was particular also due to financial settlements, taxes and other levies which had to be carried out and paid on that day. For many, that day was the last day of the old year. After 30 November, all forms of entertainment had to come to an end.
Let’s take a look at a traditional Polish household. What do we see there? The everyday hustle and bustle. People busy with cleaning and food preparation. Surprisingly, what we will not find is a Christmas tree! The custom of decorating Christmas trees first appeared on our soil between the 18th and 19th century. The Polish tradition included placing straw bundles in corners of rooms, in particular, in rooms in which the Christmas Eve celebration took place. In some houses, people would pick some straw and wrap it around fruit trees in the orchard to ensure good harvests in the next year. Initially, this custom used to be practised by all social groups in Poland. With time, it started fading away and, finally, it was kept only among peasants and the lower class.
Despite their religiousness, Poles believed that on Christmas Eve, and sometimes also between the old and the new year, ghosts of dead family members would visit their households in person. You must have heard of leaving an additional table setting during the Christmas Eve dinner, haven’t you? Indeed, our forefathers strongly believed that those empty settings (or one setting, depending on the family) would be taken by the dead family members. It was in good taste to blow onto the chair before sitting on it, in order to make sure that one would not accidentally sit on the soul of a deceased person. Forbidden actions on the Christmas Eve included also carrying out of household chores, chopping wood, cooking, sewing. All this was supposed to protect the ghosts present at home from being unwittingly hurt. The invisible guests would also receive a wafer on their plate.
However, ensuring a year-long prosperity for a household was not that easy and required many actions. For instance, there had to be an even number of people sitting at the Christmas Eve table. If it was not the case, bad luck was unavoidable, and if there were 13 participants of the feast, any chance for prosperity was lost. Well-off families invited their servants to the table to meet the even number requirement. An iron item, such as a sickle or an axe, had to be placed under the table, for the guests to rest their feet on. It was a warranty for warding off the bad luck. Some literary texts suggest that iron was considered a symbol of “strong legs” and guests would therefore protect themselves from getting hurt by thorns. The Podhale region also had interesting customs: the host would crack the wafer, name it after one of the household members, then soak the wafer in honey and stick it to the window glass. However, the meaning of this ritual was much less pleasant; if the wafer fell down quickly, the given person was expected to pass away in the near future.
The morning of 25 December was full of orders and prohibitions. According to legends, women could not visit other households in the morning, as it was believed to bring bad luck. Interestingly, the negative aspect of the superstition did not refer to men, on the contrary! Arrival of a man at the doorstep heralded prosperity of the household.
While some were preparing the evening feast, carol singers – young boys – would wander from door to door singing carols. It was also a perfect opportunity to present oneself to the future spouse. According to written sources, particularly on that day, maidens (young unmarried women) had to keep their houses clean, as it was a sign of their skills as future housewives.
Did carol singers sing the same carols in the old-time Poland as Poles do today? The word “kolęda” ("carol") originates from the Latin word “calendae” meaning “the first day of every month”. In Poland, the name "carols" did not apply to religious songs, but to New Year’s songs. Religious carols deriving from medieval Latin hymns were disseminated in Europe by Franciscan families. According to legends, the first carol was created by St. Francis. Polish legends mention songs such as “Anioł pasterzom mówił” (“The angel told the shepherds”), “Zdraw bądź królu anielski” (”Be sane, angel king”) or “W żłobie leży” (“He is lying in the crib”) – all written by Piotr Skarga. The songs that we know today date back to the 18th century. They include pieces such as: “Jezus malusieńki” (“The Little Jesus”), “Bóg się rodzi” (“God is being born”) as well as “Gdy śliczna Panna” (“As the Beautiful Virgin”). Beside the traditional carols, another type of songs – pastorals – was very popular. They were energetic, melodious carols referring to everyday life written in colloquial local dialect.
The Polish word for Christmas Eve – “Wigilia” – has Latin origins and “vigilare” means “to keep vigilance”, whereas “vigilia” means “night guard” (guard duty). The Christmas Eve customs are derived from pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. The Christmas Eve magic would emerge in many different ways. Apparently, animals would talk like humans (sadly, the news they heralded were not good, as they would inform people about the day of their death), flowers would blossom under the snow (some legends mention the fern flower which would blossom and spark at midnight), trees would grow green leaves for a moment, waters in rivers and wells would turn into honey or wine and the ground would tremble and reveal treasures hidden inside.
What superstitions were crucial on that day? Lying down was not allowed, even in the case of the suffering and weak ones, as it meant that an even greater disease would come. As an old saying goes: “The whole year will take after this day”. Other prohibited actions included spitting onto the floor, spilling dishwater, milling grains, spinning on a spinning wheel, whereas sharp objects, such as knives, scissors and needles could be used only in urgent and particular situations – they could have hurt the ancestors’ ghosts loafing around the house! This day should be free from quarrels and disputes, as well as any worries. In some parts of Poland, children would have to run around the house three times wearing just a shirt; this was supposed to harden them and prevent them from diseases. Those who wished to maintain health and beauty would wash themselves in a bowl with cold water and silver coins lying at the bottom. Borrowing anything was strictly forbidden, as it meant shortages in the upcoming year.
Outside the window, it was slowly getting dark. The family would gather to sit at the set table and enjoy each other's company while awaiting the first star on the sky. As soon as it appeared, the parents would head in front of the house with the wafer on the plate. Each household member, including servants, would share the wafer with one another and wish others Merry Christmas. One of the requirements of the supper was that no one would sit at the table while being at odds with someone else. Even the greatest enemies were asked by the host to shake one another's hands and to forgive each other. A popular game at the table consisted in pulling out a straw from under the tablecloth. If a woman pulled out a green straw, she would marry soon. If the straw was pale, the maid would have to wait some more time for the proposal. A dried out straw would herald spinsterhood. During the supper, everyone had to taste each of the 12 dishes, so that “no pleasures of the life would pass him or her by”.
Poles would also practice fastening, which would start at dawn and last until the arrival of the first star. Eating meat was also forbidden on that day. A traditional family would share a wafer in the morning, whereas the housewife would hand everyone a slice of plain bread.
Coming back to traditional dishes, it is worth mentioning that the tables, beautifully decorated with juniper, were abundant with food, and not just any kind of food! Gingerbreads, known as “katarzynki” (“Catherine's gingerbreads”), made with honey and full of herbs and spices became popular as early as in the 13th century. Many legends say that three soups had to be served to the table – almond soup, borscht with dumplings and mushroom soup with herring. Servants would eat kutia (sweet grain pudding) and family members would eat horseradish rings, carp, pike with saffron, cakes with honey and poppy seeds, perches in olive oil with chopped eggs. Children would look forward to strudels filled with fruits, cherries and pears, while adults hoped for pastry pate with fish livers (“chucherki”). Dishes which today are considered traditional in Poland, such as sour rye soup and bigos, do not come from Polish soil, but from Germany. For example, pierogi (Polish dumplings) have come to Poland from Hungary.
Dishes with poppy seed which also had a magical meaning were an inherent element. Strudels with poppy seeds, poppy milk and other products were not only a treat for the palates, but also served the purpose of connecting the living with the world of the dead. It was believed that, since poppy seeds caused deep sleep and a sleeping person is in the underworld, then he or she would also have access to it. The tradition required that all crops which the Polish land had produced must be served on the table. From the fields – flour-based dishes, from the orchard – fruits and nuts, from the garden – vegetables, from the forest – mushrooms and berries and from the waters – fish. Furthermore, straw had to be put under the tablecloth. Grain was undoubtedly the main and the most crucial symbol of Christmas – a reference to the Bethlehem crib.
After supper, the entire family would go to the church for a Christmas midnight mass to finish off the Christmas Eve and commence the upcoming new year with peace.
What is Santa Claus's place in all?
According to many legends, Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) was the bishop of Myra. He was a role model of religiosity and mercy. His roots date back to the Roman Empire of the 4th century. In his youth, he would generously give alms to those in need and help the poor. Legends about Nicholas turned him into a patron of sailors, monks, scholars, students taking exams, as well as young unmarried women. In the Polish culture, Saint Nicholas has only recently became known as a great friend of children who rewards them for their good deeds. Most people recognise the figure of Saint Nicholas without a shadow of a doubt, and children cannot imagine Christmas without him. It is worth noting that the advent calendar and the Christmas countdown has also become popular due to Santa Claus. In fact, the advent calendar takes different forms in different countries, for example, in Germany it functions as four Christmas candles, but its current form is mainly the effect of the popularisation and commercialisation of Christmas.