A Polish Christmas

A Polish Christmas

To understand a Polish Christmas one has to know about its historical and cultural background as these have shaped what we have today.

Poles love festivals and traditions and there seem to me to be more celebrations in Poland than in England with every possible Saint’s day or other opportunity  for a gathering, with eating and drinking, taken.

Polish Recipe Books For Christmas

History & Background

In the first centuries AD, around the river Warta, between the river Odra (Oder)  and the river Wisła (Vistula) was the cradle of Poland.  (The Wisła runs from the Carpathian Mountains to the Baltic Sea.) This region was immense forest land but many areas along the rivers had been cleared. In the east of Poland there are still the remains of the primeval forest at Białowierza (White Tower), this is a National Park were bison and wild boar roam.

By the 5th century the “Amber Road” was the trade route from the Baltic in the North to the Mediterranean in the South.

In the 6th & 7th centuries, many different Slav tribes arrived there, and as by now more of the land had been cleared, they settled.

The People of the Fields

By the mid 10th century  the Polanie tribe became dominant – these were the people of the fields – pole means fields in Polish.

Agriculture in General

Compared to England the summers are warmer and the winters much colder, a drier cold  than in England, often up to -300 C, with lots of snow.

The fertile plains of Poland have made it an agricultural country and the people are close to the land and understand about the seasons and food production. Even now in towns people have vegetable gardens & allotments.

Main crops are wheat, rye, buckwheat, potatoes and cabbage.

Dill is a favourite herb, also flat leaf parsley and caraway.

Pork is the most popular meat.

Poultry and eggs are used extensively

Butter, milk, soured milk, smetana (soured cream), twaróg (curd cheese) feature in many recipes.

In the south in the Tatra Mountains they make smoked cheeses from sheep’s milk.

In the  16th century southern Poland was 40C warmer than it is today and grapes for wine were grown.

Food from the Forest

Mushrooms, fruits and berries are even today collected from forests, eaten, preserved or even sold at the roadside.

Fish are caught in rivers and lakes, fish farms are becoming popular.

Dried mushrooms provide a lot of flavour in the winter diet.

Food Preservation for the Winter

  • Drying
  • Fermentation with Brine
  • Bottling
  • Smoking
  • Marinating
  • Jams – using sugar

Christianity in Poland

In 966 Duke Mieszko the First, Poland’s first recorded leader converted to Christianity.

By the 13th & 14th centuries  Roman Catholicism was the main religion in Poland.

In the late 14th century the marriage of the Polish Queen Jadwiga to the Duke of Lithuania was on the promise of his and his people’s conversion to Christianity and the formation of a new enlarged Poland.

In the 16th century the Reformation did come to Poland and did have followers but it mostly died out following arguments between different factions & the Catholic counter reformation.

After the middle of the 17th century the main religion was again Roman Catholicism and is still so today.

Poland was more tolerant of different religions than many of its neighbours and by the early 20th century  it had more Jewish people that any other country in Europe.

Advent

St Andrew’s Day –  30 November  is celebrated in Poland, and the eve  on  29 November has many superstitions and traditions to do with foretelling the future especially with regards to future husbands.

The nearest Sunday to 30 November is the start of Advent, this can be from 27 November to  3 December so there are always 4  Sundays before Christmas day.

Advent is a time of reflection, prayer and preparation.

In the past Advent was like Lent; a time of doing without.

In Poland Christmas is celebrated from the evening of 24 December – Wigilia (the vigil) and parties and visiting relatives and family happens from then on.

It seems very strange to the Poles to have all the Christmas parties before Christmas when is still Advent.

The Christmas days are called Gody – days of Harmony and Goodwill

6 December –  St Nicholas Day

Older pictures show Swięty Mikołaj (St Nicholas) in his bishop’s robes, newer ones tend to be more like the English Santa.

Presents were to be found on the doorstep or hidden in the house or under the pillow.

Pierniki – spiced honey cakes are  given to children, often in the shape of the bishop.

He returns again on Christmas Eve after the evening meal.

It used to be that presents were given on just one of these days, usually  6 December and Christmas Eve was more about the meal and carols and Church.

Nowadays  you are likely to get presents on both days.

Before the Second World War the presents were small tokens such as mandarin oranges (a luxury – as they were imported), chocolates, and an item of new clothes or a small toy.

Christmas Tree

The old Polish Tradition was to hang from the ceiling just the tip of a spruce/fir tree (tip side down) decorated with apples and nuts which were either wrapped in silver or gold paper or painted and ribbons. Old Polish Village houses are made of wood – so it was easy to attach the tree tip.

Doorways and walls were often decorated with separate boughs of the remainder of the tree.

This custom originated in pre-Christian times and texts dating back to the 15th & 16th centuries referred to this use of the tree as a pagan rite. Unable to halt the growing trend, the church then reinterpreted the tree to be the Tree of Knowledge – the tree of good and evil.

The tradition of using the whole tree came from Germany in the late 18th century and early 19th century first into the towns and then into richer villages and by the 1920s this had taken over.

In small flats and in towns, and with small funds, people often still just decorate a branch of a fir tree.

Decorations for the tree

Apples symbolise health & beauty, strength & vitality and paradise

Nuts wrapped in Silver or Gold guarantee prosperity & vitality.

When I was young we tied wrapped sweets & chocolates on the tree.

The Tree is put up on Christmas Eve (though nowadays maybe a day or 2 before) the whole family helps.

Decorated with glass baubles – in the past these were often blown eggs decorated with glitter. There are also many straw decorations – angels and stars.

Many of the old ornaments look like the apples and nuts of before.

Some of my mother’s old nut baubles with a few newer ones

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Nowadays Polish Glass Factories make 2,500 glass baubles a day,  some of them very elaborate and expensive.

Paper chains guarantee love within the family.

Candles and baubles guard the house from malevolent deeds.

The star on the top of the tree helps guide back absent family and friend

Bells symbolise good news

Angels are the guardians of the house.

Clip on candles holders with real candles though nowadays artificial lights are more likely to be used.

Photograph’s of  my mother’s clip in candle holders.

Pierniki – spiced honey cakes with white icing were used in some areas.

Polish Cribs – szopka

Cribs are varied in Poland, mostly wooden and carved, often with the shepherds dressed in traditional Polish highland costume.

Every year In Krakow in the Grand Square (Rynek Glówny) there is a competition held on the morning of the first Thursday of December, of Christmas cribs.

Image result for szopka competition

The above  image is from  the  website    Poland.pl/tourism/traditions-and-holidays/

Model makers come carrying their cribs and they are judged. The winners are kept in the Museum of Ethnography – the rest are sold.

I saw an exhibition of past winners  when they were on tour in England in 2011 at The Lowry in Salford.

This competition began in 1937. It was intended to bring back to life a tradition which had died shortly after the First World War, that of the Crib Theatre and these cribs are portable theatres for traditional puppet Nativity plays.

These ornate cribs are very colourful and richly decorated. They are covered in coloured foils, and are inspired by the architecture of Krakow eg Wawel Cathedral and the unequal spires of The Church of the Virgin Mary  – Mariatski

They can be from 15 cm high up to 2 metres high and some have clockwork mechanisms or lights.

In the past the Christmas cribs were mostly the works of Krakow masons in their idle weeks of the Polish rainy late autumn.

Nowadays it is a pastime of many Krakow dwellers of all walks of life. And the city boasts several dynasties of Christmas crib makers where two or three generations construct brand-new cribs every year.

Christmas cards

In the past these were always postcards but now folded cards are coming in to vogue.

Copies of old cards from Zakopane from the 1930s – bought in the Folk Museum there.

Cards are only sent to family and friends that will not been seen over Christmas.

In Communist times cards depicted, branches of fir trees and baubles, nowadays many religious cards are sent.

Often when Poles send cards to family abroad they include a piece opłatek. This was originally bread but now a paper thin wafer with an impression of the Nativity scene is used and is a symbol of forgiveness, unity and love.

 

The opłatek usually has the corner nipped off to show that this is being  shared. My aunty in America always does this.

Wigilia – The Christmas Vigil

I wrote a whole post about this topic last year.

Wigilia – Polish Christmas Eve

This is a very Important Meal – Poles want to be with their family on this evening.
This Christmas Eve supper became a fixed tradition in Poland in the 18th century.

It is a completely unique experience with an ordinary evening meal transformed into a celebration of family love and solidarity and it is also so strange that in a country of meat lovers this meatless meal is so important and loved.
The days before the meal were a time to thoroughly clean the house.

The day used to be a day Fasting & Abstinence as the last day of Advent – no meat on that day (abstinence) and only 1 main/large meal (fasting)

There are usually  12 dishes for the 12 apostles though some areas have an odd number of dishes either 7, 9 or 11.

I only make dishes which would have been available through food preservation in the winter or are seasonal.

Presents

If there are presents they are placed under the tree and opened at the end of the meal.

In some areas of the West of Poland– presents today come from Gwiazdor – Starman

In the South West of Poland from an angel or baby Jesus.

In Communist times to try and remove the religious idea – many tried to favour Gwiazdor often portrayed in red robes with gold star or even to introduce the Russian Grandfather Frost on January 1st – unsuccessfully.

However Gwiazdor had links with St Nicholas (Swięty Mikołaj) as he often carries a star in front of St Nicholas.

Carols

The oldest hymn/carol in the Polish Language is Bogurodzica (Mother of God) and is known from the beginning of the 13th Century.

Carols are rich and varied with examples from many different centuries with ones originating from:

  • church music
  • to many with music from the Royal Court such as the Polonaise
  • to lively folk & dance music &
  • quiet lullabies.

Many carols feature shepherds as the Poles from the countryside felt an empathy with them.

Bóg się Rodzi – a Polonaise( Polonez )– words from the 18th Century.

Przebieżeli do Betlejem – music from the 16th Century.

Carols are sung from midnight mass till 2nd February in Church.

Carollers went from the second day of the Holiday – 26 December until 6 January – carrying:

  • a star,
  • a crib,
  • a stork – the New Year – new life
  • a baby goat – fertility
  • a bear – hostile forces of Nature

In some areas Carollers went from Christmas Eve – after their own meal.

They are welcome visitors however if your house is left out then this is seen as a sign of bad luck.

Food for Christmas Day

Many would say that this meal is just like a very special Sunday Dinner.

There are not as many must have dishes on Christmas Day

As with all Polish dinners there is soup to start and this would be most likely rosol – clear chicken consommé with small pasta pieces (the original chicken noodle soup)

There will be lots of MEAT with  Pork Dishes mainly such as:

  • Roast Pork Loin with Prunes
  • Roast Pork Loin with Cloves
  • Roast Ham
  • Duck with Apples
  • Roast Goose
  • Roast Chicken stuffed with minced pork
  • Veal stuffed and rolled
  • Cold Polish smoked sausages and meats
  • Home-made pate from liver and/ or rabbit or hare
  • And nowadays maybe even Roast Turkey – an imported idea or
  • Stuffed rolada (roulade) of turkey breast
  • There could also be Bigos a stew made from sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, tomato purée and assorted sausages and meat.

Cakes

  • Piernik
  • Keks – a light fruit cake/loaf
  • Tort – rich layer cake often made from hazel nuts.

Nowadays there will also there will be chocolates & these Polish dried plums with chocolate continue the tradition of dried fruits at Christmas time – I love them!

My China & Tableware  – A New Tradition

Classic white china would be the norm for Christmas but over the last couple of years I have started to use china with poppies* and other red flowers at Christmas time  as well as china with autumn and winter foliage from my collection of china.

*Although not a Christmas flower – these poppies are a remembrance to the Battle at Monte Cassino in May 1944 & the military song – Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino – Red poppies on Monte Cassino.   As my father fought there, these are very special for me.

New Year’s Eve – Sylwestra

31 December is the feast of Saint Sylwester (Sylvester) and this is the name of the festival in Polish.

In the towns & cities the evening is often celebrated with a dance – no special traditional dishes – more of the Christmas Day type food.

Sleigh rides from house to house, with food at each, were popular in times gone by on the eve and on New Year’s Day.

The 3 Kings – 6 January  – Epiphany

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During the Christmas period the priest would visit all the homes of his parishioners and say prayers, bless the house and get an offering. He would also bless some chalk or blessed chalk would be obtained at the Mass on  6  January. This chalk is used on 6  January to write over the door frame in the house –

For example for next year – 2017

20+ K + M + B + 17

For the  year and Kasper, Melchior and Baltazar  – the traditional names of the kings.

To bless all who enter or leave in the coming year.

The end of the Christmas period

In the church –  2 February – Candlemas day – 40 days after Christmas – is the official end of Christmas and then karnawał starts – the festive time before Lent.

Karnawał – Carnival

Wigilia – Polish Christmas Eve

Wigilia means  vigil  and in Poland this word is used for the meal that is eaten on the evening(vigil) before Christmas Day  – so that is the evening  meal on Christmas Eve.

In Poland Christmas is celebrated from Wigilia and parties and visiting relatives and family happens from then on. It seems very strange to the Poles to have all the Christmas parties before Christmas which is still Advent.

This Christmas Eve meal is very important to people and most  will try to go to family to share this meal.

It is a meal that has many traditions, many more than Christmas Day itself.

It is a meal which is filled with memories, many from childhood, and you will find that every family has developed its own traditions. Many years ago when I spoke with my cousins in Poland – my mother’s family – I discovered that the meal they had at Wigilia though based on the same principles was very different that the one we had at home.

Advent

Advent is the time leading up to Christmas is observed from the 4th Sunday before Christmas (this will be from the 27th November to the 3 December) so that there will be 4 Sundays in Advent.  It is a time of reflection, prayer and preparation.

24th December is the last day of Advent  and used to be a day of  Fasting & Abstinence.

  • no meat was eaten on that day (abstinence) and
  • there was only 1 main/large meal (fasting).

Many people, myself included, keep to this custom.

The Christmas days are called Gody – days of Harmony and Goodwill.

The official end of the Christmas celebrations in church is the 2nd of February the feast of Candlemas or The Presentation of Christ in The Temple  when  karniwal – carnival starts in the lead up to Lent.

 Traditions Around The Wigilia Meal

12 dishes to represent the 12 apostles

Meat is not served.

Some people have 3 soups, 3 fish dishes, 3 vegetable dishes and 3 cakes or dried fruit dishes.

The meal starts after the first star is seen in the sky as a reminder of the Star of Bethlehem used by the 3 Kings to find the Infant Jesus. (This is much later than the usual main meal of the day in Poland).

The food should be from: the fields, the orchard, the garden, the forest and from water.

I try to use only foods that would be found in winter in Poland such as seasonal vegetables &  preserved foods which have been dried, bottled, fermented, smoked etc.

You should try to taste every dish to ensure that there will be nothing lacking in the house & harvest in the coming year.

The main dish is the fish – and in olden times some people had up to 12 fish dishes and counted these as ONE!

Fish  is the symbol of harmony, freedom and liberation – from the Greek  ICHTHYS – for fish & the initials of  Jesus Christ Son of God and Redeemer

The table should be covered  with a white table cloth over straw or hay to remind us of the manger. (People in towns often have a token bunch of hay).

Sheaves of wheat are placed in the 4 corners of the room.

An extra place is always set so that there will be a place for Jesus as the stranger who may knock at the door. The Poles think that on this night no one should be hungry or alone. (The Poles are very hospitable and I think there will always be a place no matter what time of year.)

Opłatek

At the start of the meal is the sharing of opłatek which was  originally bread but now is a wafer (like the communion host) and is a  symbol of forgiveness, unity and love.

Each person has a piece and shares it with everyone else offering each other best wishes for the coming year.

People often send a piece of  opłatek to family and friends who live far away.

 

Dishes for Wigilia

The following is a short list of some of the dishes that are often served at Wigilia:

Some of these recipes I have already covered & the links have been inserted  – others will be appearing throughout the coming year.

 

 

Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree tradition came from Germany in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century into the towns and into richer villages in the 1920s and took over from an earlier Polish Tradition of hanging from the ceiling just the tip of a spruce/fir tree (tip side down) decorated with apples, nuts which were either wrapped in silver or gold paper or painted and ribbons. Old Polish  village houses are made of wood so it is easy to attach the tree tip to the ceiling.

Doorways and walls were often decorated with separate boughs of the remainder of the tree.

People in small apartments and in towns or with limited funds often still just decorate a branch of a fir tree.

This custom originated in pre-Christian times and texts dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries referred to this use of the tree as a pagan rite. Unable to halt the growing trend, the church then reinterpreted the tree to be the Tree of Knowledge – the tree of good and evil.

The tree is put up on Christmas Eve (or maybe a day or 2 before) – the whole family helps – though the candles or lights are not usually lit until Wigilia.

 

Decorations for the Christmas Tree

Apples symbolise health and beauty.

Nuts wrapped in Silver or Gold guarantee prosperity and vitality.

When I was young we tied wrapped sweets and chocolates on the tree.

Bombki – Glass baubles – in the past these were often blown eggs decorated with glitter. There are also many straw decorations – angels or stars.

Glass baubles originated in Germany in the 19th century  but they were soon being made in Poland with their large glass blowing industry.  Many are made in small family run workshops, some making around 150,000 per day! Some now specialise in individual and unusual designs.

 

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Mama’s Old Nut Shaped Baubles

Candles  in clip on holders with real candles – though now more likely to be artificial lights.

My mother’s candle holders

 

Candles and baubles guard the house from malevolent deeds.

Paper chains guarantee love within the family.

The star on the top of the tree helps guide back home absent family and friends.

Bells symbolise good news.

Angels are the guardians of the house.

Presents

If there are presents they are placed under the tree and opened at the end of the meal.

It used to be that presents were given on  December 6th, St Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve was more about the meal and carols and Church.

Nowadays likely to get presents on both days. In some parts of Poland these gifts are said to be from  aniołek – little angel.

Before the Second World War the presents were small tokens such as mandarin oranges (a luxury – as they were imported), chocolate, and an item of new clothes or a small toy.

Pasterka  – The Shepherds’ Mass – Midnight Mass

After the meal people  go to Mass in memory of the long wait for the Messiah and the Shepherds coming to pay homage to the Infant Jesus.

Kolędy – Carols are sung from midnight mass till the 2nd  of February in Church.

Carols are rich and varied with examples from many different centuries with ones originating from church music, to many with music from the Royal Court such as the Polonaise and to folk & dance music.

The oldest carol in the Polish Language is Bogurodzica (Mother of God) and has been  known from the beginning of the 13th Century.

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