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Polonizing Polonia’s Christmas
Notions, hints, suggestions, symbols, customs and artifacts

by Robert Strybel

 

    Tradition or commercialism? That is the question! And Christmastime is a good time to ask it. The following listing has been compiled to show how elements of our ancestral heritage can contribute to a richer, deeper, more meaningful celebration of Yuletide.

    Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. More frequent prayer, attending Roraty (Advent Morning Mass) if available in your area and doing good deeds for the needy are all ways to prepare. It is also the time PolAm parishes and clubs hold pierogi sales, fish fries, herring suppers and opłatek dinners as well as Christmas bazaars and bake sales allowing people to stock up for Wigilia. (This year Advent starts on November 30th.)

    The opłatek or Christmas wafer is probably the single most important Polish ritual artifact of the season. In the family circle it is broken and shared at Christmas Eve supper. Opłatek is also the name of a community get-together featuring the wafer-sharing tradition plus refreshments, kolędy signing or a more extensive Christmas program. Opłatek is available at Polish parishes. If there isn’t one in your area, contact the PAJ Bookstore, which has grown into one of the largest sellers of opłatki in the country — shop here or call (800) 422-1275.

    Introducing the kindly old bishop Saint Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) to your parish, club or family is a good way to remind youngsters that the real St. Nick is neither an elf from the North Pole nor an advertising gimmick thought up by the Coca-Cola Co. but a symbol of anonymous altruism, especially towards those in need. And, Święty Mikołaj does not hog the holiday limelight but comes mainly on his feastday (Dec. 6) and keeps Christ in Christmas. Learn how to go about it at: www.stnicholascenter.org.

    The good-deed game is another way of reminding youngsters that Christmas should mean being kind to others rather than being preoccupied with “getting presents”. In the “hay of good deeds” (sianko dobrych uczynków), a youngster places one blade of hay in the manger each time during Advent he does something good (says his prayers, cleans his room, helps someone, gives something to a needy person, etc.). The more blades of hay in the manger, the softer will be Baby Jesus’ bed.

    When sending Christmas wishes in traditional printed greeting cards or via email, be sure to add a Polish personal touch by penning in a few words of your own such as: “Życzymy Wam radosnych Świąt i obfitych łask Bożych w Nowym 2015 Roku.” To mailed greetings add a piece of opłatek, breaking off and eating a corner of it before sealing the envelope.

    Introduce your family or community group to traditions (customs, foods, crafts, lore, etc.) you may have heard of, read about or seen practiced by others. You can read up on them in such books as Father Czesław Krysa’s A Polish Christmas Eve, Treasured Polish Christmas Customs, Christmas in Poland and Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore. Or Google Polish Christmas or Christmas in Poland.

    Gifts of cultural heritage could be a good way of getting out of the stereotypical gift-giving rut. Depending on your recipient’s interests and tastes, there are many different things that can remind him or her of their Polish ancestral legacy: books, recordings, folkcraft items, amber jewelry, crystalware, wycinanki, wall-hangings and even a bottle (Wyborowa, Sobieski or Chopin vodka, Polish honey wine, fruit cordials, etc.).

    A Polish Christmas bazaar or fair (Polski Kiermasz Świąteczny or Jarmark Gwiazdkowy) is both a good fund-raiser and an excellent way of promoting our heritage. Items should include: opłatek, hay, traditional decorations, kolędy (recordings, notes), Polish books and assorted gifts. Check with the following on what goods and quantity discounts are available:

  • Polish American Journal Bookstore, P.O. Box 271, North Boston, NY 14110-0271; (800) 422-1275; info@polamjournal.com; www.polamjournal.com.
  • PolArt, www.polandbymail.com
  • The 10 best-known Polish kolędy (carols) are probably “Wśród nocnej ciszy,” “Dzisiaj w Betlejem,” “Pójdźmy wszyscy do stajenki,” “Gdy się Chrystus rodzi,” “W żłobie leży,” “Śliczna Panienka,” “Bóg się rodzi,” “Anioł pasterzom mówił,” “Lulajże, Jezuniu” and “Mędrcy świata.”

    Family or club craft projects that involve making a Christmas crib, caroling star, traditional tree ornaments (fashioned from paper, straw, opłatek, egg-shells, feathers, pine cones, etc.) or wycinanki (paper cuttings) may be a better alternative to staying glued to the TV or computer screen and buying all your decorations in a store. (Some Christmas crafts are described in the above-mentioned books.)

    The Christmas tree and crib are typical holiday decorations found in most PolAm homes. Although many PolAms feel pressured by the advertising establishment into rushing things, maybe this year you could opt for the traditonal way and set up your Christmas tree and nativity set early on Christmas eve itself. Those that set Christmas things up right after Thanksgiving are usually sick of them by December 26th.

    A Polish Christmas presentation could encompass every imaginable facet of our holiday heritage. This time of year clubs, community groups, schools and individual teachers are on the look-out for those who can give interesting Yule-related talks or demonstrate Christmas crafts, food preparation and various customs. Look around and you may find such opportunities in your community. Let’s share our beautiful Christmas heritage with others!

    Typical Wigilia foods include: barszcz czerwony z uszkami (clear beetroot soup with tiny, ear-shaped mushroom-filled dumplings), zupa grzybowa z łazankami (mushroom soup with noodles squares), śledź w oleju lub w śmietanie (herring in oil or sour cream), ryba smażona (floured, breaded or battered fish fried in oil), pierogi z kapustą i grzybami (dumplings filled with sauerkraut & mushrooms), kapusta z grzybami, grochem lub łazankami (sauerkraut with mushrooms, whole yellow dried peas or noodles), kluski z makiem (noodles with poppyseeds), kutia (cooked wheat with honey and poppyseed), ryż z jabłkami (rice & apple casserole), racuszki z konfiturami (buckwheat pancakes with preserves) and kompot z suszu (stewed dried fruit).

    The opłatek-dinner – also called Vigil Supper, Wigila or Polish Christmas Eve Party – is a Polonian community get-together usually held in a hall a week or so before Christmas Eve. This is a good way to introduce the uninitiated to our beautiful Wigilia heritage, especially if the organizers make an effort to do things up right in accordance with tradition. The event may also include a Polish Christmas pageant (jasełka, herody, kolędnicy) and/or a Christmas bazaar.

    Wigilia supper for the needy, widely held throughout today’s Poland, is a practice our Polonia might do well to emulate. Unlike the typical opłatek-dinners, attended for cultural self-enrichment by those who can afford it, Christmas Eve suppers for the needy are for the poor, homeless, orphaned and lonely – all those deprived of family warmth at Christmas time. Food donated by parishioners, club members and local merchants plus volunteer labor to put it all together could turn this project into a beautiful act of Christmas sharing.

    Explaining what it’s all about is important at Polish-style Christmas festivities, since those of non-Polish background often marry into Polonian families, and those versed in their Polish heritage often mingle with PolAms who have drifted away. At organized Polish community events, the officiating clergyman or emcee should briefly describe the customs, symbols and foods or a printed program can be used for that purpose.

    Hay is scattered beneath the table-cloth for Wigilia supper in memory of the Christ Child’s humble birth.; If hay is not available at your parish or Polish import or specialty shop, try a local feed store. They might not even charge you for a handful of hay, and that’s all you really need. City-dwelling PolAms have been known to dry some grass clippings near a heating duct to produce their own hay.

    Revive some Christmas traditions your immigrant ancestors may have once upheld but which over the years have fallen by the wayside. Take time to look up the oldest living ancestor – a great-grandparent, aunt or other elderly family member who may recall what things were like way back when. And, if you don’t ordinarily do so, invite that person to your Christmas celebration.

    A Christmas food and bake sale (targ przysmaków świątecznych) is an excellent way of making available the Wigilia and post-Wigilia Christmas foods most PolAms love but may find too involved and time-consuming to prepare. These are usually prepared by volunteers who donate their time and sometimes the fixings as well. Polish foods are also available from professionals companies such as Polana, Inc. – soups, pierogi, gołąbki, sausage, traditional cakes ssuch as. makowiec, piernik & sernik delivered to your doorstep; phone: (773) 545-4900 or (888) POLANA-1; www.polana.com

    A Polish Christmas presence need not exclusively mean organizing a major All-Polish event from scratch. You and your friends might also consider setting up a Polish booth or renting a table at one of the many Christmas bazaars, craft fairs, bake sales or other events held in community centers, malls and various churches. Such items as imported Polish tree ornaments, wycinanki, amber and wood carvings not to mention Polish food and baked goods may well turn your stand into one of the event’s major attractions.

    Kolędy at the mall, in the town square, at the community center , school, nursing home, etc. is a good way to share to beauty of Polish carols with the community at large. Where you perform, the size of your group, whether you go in street dress, choir gowns or in the attire of traditional Polish kolędnicy (star-bearer, King Herod, death, devil, etc.) depends on the availability of costumes and existing local conditions.

    Share Polish Christmas lore with your family and community. It was once believed that on Christmas Eve animals could speak and the water in wells turned into wine at the stroke of midnight. It was considered bad luck if the first outsider to enter someone’s home on the morning of Christmas Eve was a female. The odd person (7th, 13th, etc.) joining the Wigilia supper was not expected to live to see another Christmas. Strands of hay from under the table-cloth were believed to foretell a girl’s marriage prospects.

    On St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), the second day of Christmas, worshipers in the countryside would throw oats at each other and at the priest as a sign of well-wishing; the custom originated to commemorate the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death for his faith.

    St. John’s Day (Dec. 27), traditionally the third day of Christmas, is the day priests bless wine in church. This might be a good occasion to hold a Polish wine-tasting party with refreshments, community caroling and other attractions. If a clergyman is present, he should first bless the wine and explain the origin of the custom: Enemies once served St. John the Apostle poisoned wine, but after he blessed it, he could drink it unharmed.

    At your Bal Sylwestrowy (New Year’s Eve ball), in addition to Auld Lang Syne be sure to sing “Jak szybko mijają chwile” when you ring in 2015. When the orchestra takes a break, it might be a good time to demonstrate the fortune-telling games that were once an important part of New Year festivities or perhaps have a group of traditional kolędnicy on hand to entertain the revelers.

    Keep your Christmas tree and manger up at least till January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings and be sure to inscribe your doorway with blessed chalk on that day: K + M + B 2015.

    Whichever of the above ways you decide on, let’s hope 2014-2015 Christmas-New Year’s season is the time you add at least one genuine Polish tradition to your family and/or community holiday scene.

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