by Bill Egan, Christmas Historian © 1999-2001
Poland is a land of fascinating traditions, superstitions, and legends. Its people have always combined religion and family closeness at Christmas time. Gift giving plays only a minor role in the rituals, emphasis being placed instead on making special foods and decorations.
The highlight of Christmas celebrations in Poland is Christmas Eve as the family watches for the first star of the night or Gwiazdka (little star), in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem. The moment the star appears, everyone exchanges greetings and good wishes. Families unite for the most carefully planned meal of the year, Wigilia, the Christmas supper which ends a 24-hour fast. The Wigilia derives its name from the Latin word vigilare which means to keep watch or keep vigil.
The dinner table is covered with the best white tablecloth with bits of hay underneath as a reminder that Jesus was born in a manger. Custom dictates that an even number of people must be seated around the table with one place left empty for a stranger, the spirit of a deceased member of the family or the Holy Spirit.
Traditionally, there is no meat served during Wigilia. Still, the meal is plentiful and luxurious. It begins when the head of the household breaks the Oplatek, a wafer of unleavened dough stamped with scenes of the nativity, and shares is with the family (and sometimes, the family's livestock in the barn).
An uneven number of dishes is served (the quantity depending on the wealth of the household). An even number would eliminate any hope of an increase in wealth, children or anything desirable.
Though the dishes vary between regions, certain items are found almost everywhere. Favorites include mushroom and beet soups, prune dumplings, dumplings with sauerkraut, varieties of fish, and noodles with poppy seed. Desserts vary regionally, but usually include poppy seed cake, strudel, and kutya, a dish made with grain, nuts, or raisins and honey. Often there is a compote of twelve fruits in honor of the Apostles.
After supper, family and guests stay at the table until, at a signal from the host, they all rise in unison and leave. This is the result of an old superstition that the first to rise will die before the next Christmas Eve.
After the Wigilia, presents are opened having been brought by the Star Man, or the Little Star or, in some areas, Santa Claus.
The remainder of the evening is given to stories and koledy (carols) around the Christmas tree. The tree is decorated with beautiful blown glass ornaments, a result of the recent revival of the glassblowing trade in Poland. There are also ornaments made from eggshells, colored paper, wafers and straw.
In the rural areas carollers go door to door, one carrying a star, one dressed as King Herod, and others as angels and shepherds. Midnight finds many families attending Pasterka, the Shepherd's Mass.
In the days leading up to Christmas Szopka creche competitions are held in Krakow's Market Square. The elaborate and colorful Szopka are constructed to resemble the local architecture and they take hundreds of hours and great patience to complete. It's considered a great honor to be selected for the first prize.
After the competition they can be seen on display in the cathedrals and churches throughout the area.
In the Silence of the Night or "Wondrous Child"
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