Christmas in Poland...
Some of you, are wondering, no doubt, how we celebrate Christmas here in Poland. You will probably be sorely disappointed, but we haven't really adopted the Polish traditions - for many reasons - 1. they eat a lot of fish on Christmas eve - we don't generally care for much fish and 2. we really like celebrating on the day of Christmas itself - not the day before.
So what's it like?
The big celebration here tends to be about 4 pm - when they figure the first star can be seen (assuming it is a clear night)...where the family gathers around the table for their traditional 12 course meal - but no meat except fish (I consider fish meat since it is the flesh of an animal) but lots of veggies, etc. I'm not sure that most people actually have 12 courses...but they do have a lot. They were supposed to have been fasting all day so far, so they are very hungry when they sit down to eat. The things they eat are dishes such as mushroom soup (mushrooms from the woods- not the white kind you are familiar with), potatoes, pierogi, lots of cakes, etc.
They eat together, no alcohol is supposed to be allowed, from what I understand...as symbolically, anyway, Christ hasn't been born yet, so they are still fasting. They set an empty place for a stranger - I'm sure some do and some don't--depends on how much space they have. They break a special wafer have bought and give each other good wishes. Extended family usually gets together for this meal.
After the meal, they exchange gifts. I haven't figured out how Santa gets involved here...as the whole thing of him coming down the chimney doesn't work in this rendition, but I saw a lot of Santa suits being sold the other day. (Introducing Santa into this day is definitely a nonPolish thing--or at least he doesn't try to come down the chimney and make it to all the kids in one night as in the Night Before Christmas poem). They spend time together. I imagine some help the mom clean up. The religious ones wait around until midnight and go to be midnight mass at their local Catholic church. I think the bells ring at midnight--but truthfully, I am usually asleep and don't hear anything. This is the moment, when, I believe, they believe that Christ was born--or at least, symbolically.
On Christmas day itself, the religious ones go back to church for another mass. They spend the day with family, and now they can eat their turkey, or goose, or ham or whatever. I believe the alcohol is now broken open as well. (We are total abstainers, so I'm telling you what I think happens.) They eat all day....(this is what I've been told--like our Thanksgiving.)
On the 26th, they will generally gather at yet another family member's house and eat leftovers and spend the day with family yet again. At the end of the 26th, they head for home because the 27th is a regular work day. From about 2 pm on the 24th through the end of the 26th, it is a long holiday - stores aren't open. Gas stations are, however....but that seems to be about it. It's by law that the stores aren't open, BTW.
So you can see that while Christmas might be hard for those of you in the states with no family, the whole festivities are even more difficult for those here with no family or loved ones to spend it with since it lasts so long. The kids are out of school from about the 22nd until after the new year.
The meal, Wigilia....the word means "vigil" or "waiting"...means they are waiting for the birth of Christ. Everything makes a lot more sense if you understand that. Everything they do has a symbolic meaning. I'll see if I can find a nice article specifically dealing with Polish traditions at Christmas.
A Polish man told me years ago, though, that many of the old traditions are being lost as many people just use the time to sit around and watch tv.