Christmas in Poland and Polonia
Christmas Eve in Poland is called Wigilia. The Latin origins of the word Wigilia are the same as those of the English word "vigil," meaning keeping watch in expectation of something. Of course, what the Christian world awaits on this date is the birth of Jesus, the Christ Child. The Catholic custom is that of attending midnight Mass or "Pasterka," a name that comes from "pasterze" the Polish word for shepherds who, according to the evangelists, were the first to greet the New Born King.
In Poland in common parlance, Christmas is referred to as "Gwiazdka," or little star. And it is the appearance of the first star in the eastern sky that Polish children await most eagerly on Christmas Eve. This is because this evocation of the Star of Bethlehem signals that the Wigilia festivities can start.
These began with the sharing of the "opłatek", about which more later, and by the Wigilia dinner after which attention could turn to the Christmas tree. If the tree was in a different room, its doors would be opened. It was the first sight of the wondrous tree decorated with glass apples, paper chains, beautiful straw and paper ornaments and candles. And under the tree lay the packages from among which one could retrieve one’s own and find out what marvelous and exciting things they contained.
The Christmas Tree came to Poland just a hundred years ago, and with it the custom of giving gifts on Christmas Eve, rather than on New Year’s Day. It was brought to Poland by German settlers who came to Poland in massive numbers during the period of the partitions, that is, from 1795 to 1918 when Poland were occupied by the Prussians (Germans), the Russians, and the Austrians. Already then various decorations, among them de rigeur the "forbidden fruit," that is apples, were hanged on the tree’s branches and paper chains, symbolizing the serpent, were draped on it. The Christmas Tree was thus a symbol of the Garden of Eden's tree of life.
The antecedent and ancient Polish custom, on the other hand, was to hang from the ceiling in a central position the topmost part of a spruce tree, upside down, and to decorate doorways and wall with separate boughs of the same. These were variously called "sad", "podłaz,"or podłażniczek." The most festive, decorated with ribbons, wafers, and decorations made of straw was hung above the Wigilia dinner.
In the Krakow region, they decorated a hanging upside down top a pine tree with apples, nuts, pears, and ginger breads. Beginning the day after Christmas these delicacies could be eaten by children and carolers.
Within sight of In the Podhale region it was well understood that during the Holidays there reigned, within sight of the podłazy, a total “suspension of hostilities” where one had to be civil and speak without anger to one’s even most inveterate enemies.
The other important components of Christmas decorations were straw and, under the white tablecloth, hay. These evoked the Bethlehem manger but the use of straw dates from even earlier Polish tradition, when it was thought of as the hair of of Mother Earth, a symbol of fertility and plenty. Thus sheafs of wheat were placed in the four corners of the room and, less frequently, a pleated straw cord would be made to girth the lower part of the holiday table. In urban settings, this custom was displace with a handful of straw on a plate tied together with a ribbon.
In the folk tradition, the turn of the year was a time when the barriers between the here and now and the world of magic, ghosts, and the supernatural became more permeable. On Christmas Eve the homes were hunted by the spirits of the ancestors - that was the original reason for leaving an empty setting at the Wigilia dinner. Frequently a big bonfire would be set in the yard or garden next to the house so that the frozen ghosts could first warm themselves up. In those days it was thought prudent to move about the house carefully, clapping ones hand before sitting down at the table so as not to startle some weary soul who might be resting there. Also, one was supposed to leave the remains of the Wigilia dinner on the table for them.
The magical Wigilia evening lent itself well for all sort of fortune telling and predictions. The candles on the Christmas tree would be lit and the way the smoke rose from them could be used to divine the future. During the festive dinner, the youngster pooled pieces of hay from under the tablecloth to see how soon they would enter into marriage vows. If the piece was green, it meant quite soon, if it was wilted - a longer wait could be expected, and if yellow - spinsterhood loomed. It was also considered good form to adjure fate, for instance by girthing the table with a chain “that it always bear bread,” or by placing some part of a plow under it, an action which was supposed to disincline moles from burrowing the owner’s fields.
That Christmas Eve magic, that reunion in fact or thought with relatives and friends, present, distant, or deceased found particular immanence in the sharing of the "opłatek". An unconsecrated bread wafer, frequently embossed with Christmas scenes, it represents an evolution from the "podpłomyk" (which translates as “before the flame”), a thin flat bread that was traditionally baked before placing the loaves of bread dough in the oven. Scored before baking it would be broken and shared. So too the opłatek, which is ceremoniously shared, each person holding some part of an opłatek in one hand and breaking a piece of one likewise being held in the hand of the other person. Then, before ingesting the newly broken off pieces, each participant in the ceremony wishes the other what ever the heart dictates. The ceremony is repeated with each member of the family, friends and whoever else is present. The ceremony, one of the most enduring and meaningful Christmas Eve traditions, need not occur on Christmas Eve itself.
The Opłatek, frail, perishable, has for all Poles a mystical meaning which cannot be explained logically. At Christmas time it is sent to absent members and close friends in strange lands, who in their loneliness, partake of it, as of communion with their loved ones at home.
The Opłatek, of little monetary value, is the treasured link that brings warm memories of Poland to her children settled in different parts of the world. Losing reality for the moment, they once again dream that they are seated with the family at the Wigilia table, enjoying the blessing, forgiveness, and warmth of those under the parental roof.
The most cherished sentiments in the opłatek ceremony are reconciliation and the coming together of all.