I thought I’ll share the pictures I’ve been taking around rainy Warsaw for the last couple of days (or, actually- nights) and use them as an excuse to tell you about Polish Christmas traditions which are quite different from the ones I know from the UK.
First of all, in Poland the most important day of the year where all the celebrations take place is Christmas Eve. Ironically, it is not a bank holiday so in order to prepare our dinner on time, we’ll probably need to embrace a few sleepless nights. We won’t have time for anything, and of course, there’s some social pressure for everything to be perfect, like in some cheesy American film, which for us means stress, rush and being grumpy. Seriously, an additional day off wouldn’t really hurt, would it.
Anyway, when we have all the food ready, it’s time to lay the table.
And this is where the first tradition gets on board- it is very popular to put some hay under the tablecloth as, according to some people’s beliefs, baby Jesus was born on the hay. We’ve never practiced that in my family but a lot of people I know is familiar with this custom so there must be something to it.
Another, even more important habit we need to remember about while lying the table is leaving an additional seat for some unexpected guest. In theory it’s a noble gesture as nobody should be alone at Christmas, but in practice… I don’t know a single person who’d let a total stranger into their house these days- the famous Polish hospitality is one thing, the other one is to stay safe!
According to the tradition, you should seat at the table when the first star appears in the sky (which, in my family, is usually between 3 and 7 pm 😛 – as you can see it’s rather symbolic and each family adjust it to their working hours).
The dinner starts with wishing all the best to your relatives and exchanging the pieces of Christmas wafer, which I believe, may symbolise sharing bread but I’m not an expert here.
There’s also the tradition of having 12 different dishes during your Christmas Eve dinner (12 disciples?) but if you count all the starters and desserts, there are often many more. And as for the dinner itself, it’s completely meat-free. For some reason we eat plenty of fish and only start eating meat on 25th. I also heard that some very religious people fast the whole day on 24th to make the Christmas Eve dinner their first meal of the day, but again, that’s never been the case in my family.
Typical Christmas Eve dishes would be pierogi (kind of dumplings filled with mushroom and cabbage) and beetroot soup (although my family love it as much as the Brits love their brussel sprouts so we never have it and simply replace it with mushroom soup). And as I mentioned before- tonnes of fish prepared in various ways. The most traditional fish is carp and you can still see these creatures in supermarkets, all alive and ready to be taken home with you to spend a night in the bath and then, get killed by some less sensitive family member. Quite cruel, isn’t it? The true is, that, although such scene may still be haunting my mum as her childhood nightmare of making friends with the fish to see it on a dinner table a few hours later, these days hardly anybody eats carp. I’ve never tried it myself but I’m told it’s not very tasty and if we add the horror scene of killing the fish there’s really no point. Instead, we buy frozen fillets of some different species and happily eat them until we can’t move. Then it’s time for desserts. The most obvious choice is gingerbread and a poppy-seed cake but apart from those it can be pretty much anything- most likely some cheesecake, apple pie and ice cream.
When everyone is about to pass out, it’s time to get the presents- yay! And here, as far as I know, there are a few ways for them to be distributed. The easiest one is finding them right under the tree which is my favourite method but probably I’m the only enthusiast of keeping things simple because if there are some small children in the family, you would expect them to wait for Father Christmas, right? What usually happens in such case is one of the family members playing the role, dressed up in some creepy red costume with fake beard and moustache. It’s quite convenient, but there’s always a risk of your dad or uncle to be exposed by disappointed children in front of embarrassed adults so of course, there must be an alternative. You can simply hire Father Christmas and let some poor students repair their budget. Sound ideal? Think what happens next: The fake Father Christmas is getting late (he’s always late), the children are crying, thinking he forgot about them, then they fall asleep tired of waiting. This is the moment when the fake Santa finally arrives so you wake up the little ones and they, still half-conscious, are scared to death seeing some dodgy creature with a big, red alcoholic nose who wants them to say some nursery rhymes, so they start crying again. Your head is about to explode, your mad at the kids to dare cry, you’re mad at Father Christmas to dare come late, you mad at yourself to dare come up with such a stupid idea and you promise this year was absolutely the last time.
It was exactly like this in my family for years but then, luckily, someone decided to stop this awkward tradition- better late than never I guess.
Anyway, there’s no fake Santa anymore, now we are all able to enjoy our prezzies without the unnecessary stress- yay!
When everyone is happy with what they got, we could possibly sing some carols but… Polish carols are the saddest ones I’ve ever heard! I just can’t get it! All of them are religious (we don’t sing about the snow, reindeer and Christmas trees), which makes it even more surprising- I guess people should be very happy that their god was born… instead, listening to Polish carols you could get really depressed to hear about a (born in extreme poverty) baby who’s crying because he’s cold and his mother doesn’t have any spare clothing to cover her son. Being a little girl I always wanted to give my blanket to baby Jesus, asking my parents if he’s going to die and after all, feeling helpless about the whole situation. For me such a tragic story repeated over and over again to the equally depressing music simply ruins the whole festive atmosphere so in these case I would definitely go for Rudolf and the gang! Commercial? Of course. But also full of joy and positive feelings and this is what Christmas should be all about, don’t you think?