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Polish Christmas Traditions and Rituals
Christmas in Poland
Christmas is a very important holiday in Poland, as you would expect of a catholic country. Even people who are not practising catholics take take its customs very seriously. Some of its traditions go back hundreds of years to the beginnings of the last millennium.
Despite the best efforts to commercialise it, it is still very focused on spending time with one's family and close friends. Food, however, plays as important a part, as it does in Western countries.
The big day over the holiday season is Christmas Eve, Wigilia in Polish. This is the day of the family Christmas dinner. Christmas day is usually spent visiting more distant family members and friends.
Food on Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is a fast day, no meat is eaten on the day. This is observed even by people who are not practising catholics. Luckily fish is not considered "meat" as far as religious fasts are concerned.
The soup is usually barszcz, beetroot soup. On this day it is served with little ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms, called uszka (little ears). They are not usually served with barszcz except on this day. Alternatively a wild mushroom soup is eaten in some families.
The fish is traditionally carp. In the past many people would buy the fish alive, and keep them so until the last minute to ensure they are very fresh. Carp can be served fried, roasted or in aspic.
Traditionally, the dinner consists of twelve different dishes, symbolising the twelve apostles. Although that is not adhered to strictly now. Possibly because the smaller family groups can't really manage 12 different dishes.
One of the sweets usually served is Makowiec, a roulade with a filling of poppy seeds and spices.
The Christmas Waver, the Oplatek, is Central to Celebrating Christmas in Poland
One of the most important Polish traditions at Christmas in sharing the oplatek. These are very thin, Christmas wavers, made out of unleavened flour and water, with biblical scenes stamped on them. They can be obtained in all churches in the run up to Christmas.
Every member of the family has a wafer. Before the Christmas Eve dinner, each participant breaks off a small piece of somebody else's wafer, and after eating it, wishes them happiness. The other person reciprocates. This is also supposed to be the time, when any wrongs and grievances done from the previous year are forgiven and forgotten about.
Polish people living abroad will often receive the Christmas wafer in a letter from their family or friends in Poland, so they can carry on this important tradition, even in foreign lands.
Other Wigilia traditions
It is customary to place a little bit of hay under the tablecloth on Christmas Eve dinner as a reminder that Jesus was born in a manger.
Dinner starts as soon as the first star is seen in the sky as a reference to the Star of Bethlehem which revealed the birth of Jesus to the wise men in the East. This is especially important in households with children, who are given the task of spotting stars.
This is probably a superstition, rather than a tradition, but some families try to ensure that there is an even number of guests around the table. An odd number is supposed to result in bad luck.
Many people observe the beautiful tradition of making sure there is an extra setting at the table. This is variously meant for, an unexpected visitor, a family member of friend who is away, or even a dead relative, whose spirit might possibly want to sit at the table.
After the wigilia dinner, it is time to open the presents.