Adding ethnic flavor to your holiday routine
Re-discover your Polish Christmas Heritage
by Robert Strybel

If you are among the growing number of Polish Americans who believe Christmas has become far too commercialized, your Polish heritage may be worth exploring for meaningful alternatives. It contains numerous spiritual and cultural elements that can help enrich the Yuletide celebrations of your family, PRCUA group, Falcon’s nest, parish or local community. To benefit from that heritage, however, it is necessary to go against the grain and not get swept up in the “shop till you drop” propaganda blaring forth from the media. That includes convincing our impressionable youngsters that all the grinning Santas they see are nothing more sales promoters out after their parents’ credit cards. Here are some of the ingredients and suggested activities of the season:

ADVENT  (Adwent). This is a roughly four-week period of spiritual preparation for Christmas and a good time to remind our youngsters that the Christmas spirit is more than getting presents from Santa. It should also be a time to share our time, effort and abundance with those less fortunate: the poor, homeless, lonely, elderly and housebound. The media will be working overtime to convince people that this is mainly the time for house-cleaning, shopping, decorating and partying, so keep telling yourself and those around you not to forget to do good deeds.

GOOD DEEDS (dobre uczynki). That idea can be instilled in preschoolers through “the hay of good deeds” (“sianko dobrych uczynków”). The child receives a handful of hay (or dried grass clippings). He or she is told to place one strand of hay into an empty manger each time he or she performs a good deed: helps someone, shares something, helps around the house, etc. The more good deeds, the softer the bed Baby Jesus will have on Christmas Eve. Older youngsters can help prepare food baskets for the needy or pay visits to needy neighbors or nursing homes.

ST. NICHOLAS DAY (Dzień Świętego Mikołaja) is a good way to teach children the deeper meaning of the season: spirituality and charity. At a St. Nick celebration on or around his feast day (Dec. 6), the kindly old bishop quizzes youngsters on their prayers, charitable acts and good deeds and may ask them to sing a kolęda before rewarding them with treats.. Why promote the already grossly overpublicized Santa, the unsaintly patron of greedy sales promoters, when our own heritage has a far better alternative?

POLISH CHRISTMAS GREETINGS, which you may want to add to your English Christmas card or a letter you send in November December to family in Poland, might read: “Wesołych Świąt i szczęśliwego Nowego Roku” (the standard short greeting). Or you can expand it to read: “Zasyłamy serdeczne życzenia radosnych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia oraz dobrego zdrowia i wszelkiej pomyślności w Nowym 2016 Roku!” If you want to email loved ones in Poland but lack Polish characters on your keyboard, just visit / and your problem will be solved. Just type your greeting in the typeit box, copy and paste it into your e-mail message.

AN UNIQUE POLISH CHRISTMAS TREAT can be experienced by you and your loved ones, especially if you happen to live in the Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago area. Polonuia’s fabulous Lira Singer and Dancers, this year celebrating their golden anniversary, will be presenting Lira Singers, Lira Dancers and Lira Symphony will present “Joyous Jubilee – 50 Years of Polish Carols, Song and Dance” with folk customs narrated by Lira co-founder, Lucyna Migała. Tehy perform in Cleveland on Saturday, November 28, 2015, 8:00 p.m., at the Connor Palace Theater, in Detroit on Sunday, November 29, 2015, 3:00 p.m., at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts; and in Chicago on Sunday, December 13, 2015, 3:00 p.m. at St. Mary of the Angels Church. Tickets may be purchase from Lira at (800) 547-LIRA, (773) 508-7040 or at the door.

POLISH HOLIDAY FAIR (kiermasz świąteczny) is a great fund-raiser that helps to promote our heritage. One reason some PolAms drift away from their heritage is the local unavailability of the necessary “fixings.” A Polish holiday fair, Christmas bazaar, bake sale, etc. can go a long way to remedying the situation by bringing it all together in one place. Such an event may feature opłatek, hay (for placing under the table-cloth), Wigilia foods, baked goods, imported delicacies, cultural artifacts (books, kolędy [notes, lyrics, recordings], Christmas cribs), gift items (amber, crystal, folkcrafts), etc.

POLISH EVERGREEN DECORATION (podłaźnik, podłaźniczka, sad), known long before the Christmas tree made the scene, consists of the peak-side-down top of an evergreen or an evergreen branch suspended from the ceiling or rafters, often over the dining-room table. It can be decorated with fruit, nuts, marzipan (almond-paste) confections and sweets in shimmering wrappings as well as home-made ornaments. It is worth promoting in our Pol-Am parishes, clubs and businesses and is great for small apartments because it does not take up any floor or table space.

POLISH CHRISTMAS WORKSHOP. Depending on available human resources (qualified instructors, publicity chairmen, volunteers) and local interest, such a project could focus on one or more aspects of our Polish Christmas heritage. It might include lectures coupled with videos, slides and practical demonstrations pertaining to folkcrafts (Kraków cribs, home-made tree ornaments, wycinanki, mobiles, caroling costumes and artifacts), customs, food preparation and/or choir carol practice. This is a good occasion to stress the importance of the Wigilia heritage to Polish Christmas celebrations (see next entry).

CHRISTMAS EVE SUPPER (wieczerza wigilijna), Poland’s single most important family gathering is rife with beautiful symbolism and age-old customs. Hay is scattered on the table beneath the table-cloth, and the meal begins when the evening’s first star appears in the sky. It comprises (depending on local tradition) either a dozen or an odd number of meatless dishes. The meal begins when the evening’s first star appears in the sky with the sharing of opłatek. After the meal, kolędy are sung and gifts are exchanged, after which the family attends Pasterka (Midnight mass).

CHRISTMAS WAFER (opłatek) is a white unleavened wafer imprinted with nativity motifs and sometimes referred to as “angel bread” (“chleb anielski”). It is the single most important artifact of Polish-style Christmas, without which the celebration would be unthinkable. Traditionally bits of the wafer are shared amid an exchange of best wishes with all present as a sign of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Opłatek is sometimes referred to as “angel bread” (“chleb anielski”). It is the single most important artifact of Polish-style Christmas, without which the celebration would be unthinkable.

OPŁATEK GATHERING (spotkanie opłatkowe) is the name of a Christmas get-together which involves breaking and sharing opłatek at church, work, school, your Falcons nest or toerh lodge, veterans’ post, PolAm club or community center. Often carols are sung and light refreshments may be served, but usually not a full meal.

CHRISTMAS EVE FOOD (potrawy wigilijne) is 100% meatless. Typical dishes include: herring (pickled, creamed, in oil, in salads); soups (clear beet with mushroom-filled dumplings, clear mushroom with noodles, mushroom-ryemeal soup, fish chowder), fried, baked, poached and/or jellied fish, sauerkraut dishes, pierogi (filled with sauerkraut, cabbage, mushrooms, cheese and potatoes); sweet dishes (poppyseed noodles, wheat pudding [kutia], dried-fruit compote, etc,) and Christmas cakes.

COMMUNITY WIGILIA, often referred to in Polonia as an “Opłatek Dinner,” can be little more than but a simple meal (fried fish, sauerkraut and mushrooms, pierogi, poppyseed cake) or may be a full multi-course supper. Usually it is held before Christmas some time during December, but holding the event on Christmas Eve itself should be considered especially in places where people have drifted away from the home Wigilia tradition or where there are many elderly people living alone with no-one to prepare things. A parish hall would be the ideal venue for such a supper, followed by community caroling and finally attendance at Midnight Mass.

CHRISTMAS EXTRAVAGANZA would a “glorified community Wigilia.” In addition to the opłatek-sharing and Christmas Eve meal, however simple or elaborate, this get-together can also feature a variety of side events enhancing the overall heritage experience. These could include a Polish Christmas food and bake sale, a craft and gift bazaar, a cooking demonstration showing how to prepare Polish Christmas dishes, community caroling, a kolędy choir concert, Christmas play, and even a visit by the real Saint Nicholas, the kindly old bishop Święty Mikołaj, who quizzes kids on their prayers and good deeds before rewarding them with treats and gifts.

A GIFT OF HERITAGE is something that will remind those on your gift list of our beautiful Polish traditions. It could be a book, recording, DVD, decorative item, something in amber or crystal, a wood-carving, wall-hanging, framed paper cut-out (wycinanki), etc. Check out what’s available by visiting the PAJ’s Christmas Store at website at





Enter recipient's e-mail:


P.O. BOX 271, NORTH BOSTON, NY 14110-0271
 (716) 312-8088 | Toll Free (800) 422-1275

PayPal-trusted site
All major credit cards accepted