FEATURE | DECEMBER 2013
Christmas in Poland
by Krysia Kmieć-Markowski
A Christmas filled with Polish traditions has always been a magical time for me, and the prospect of actually spending it in Poland, with my husband’s family, was exciting. However, since I had always spent Wigilia with my family I prepared for my one-month winter trip to Poland with a mixture of emotions, as it would be my first Christmas away from home.
The Royal Route leading to Castle Square was decorated with elaborate umbrella-shaped streetlamp fixtures, which made the setting the perfect picture postcard.
I met my husband Jurek in The Lubliniacy Polish Song and Dance Ensemble when he joined the group. Jurek was in the United States without his family and was invited to spend Wigila with mine, even before we were married. He had not spent Christmas or New Year’s with his own family since arriving in the States, so I knew this trip would be especially meaningful for him. As a Polish American brought up with Old World seasonal traditions, I was prepared to experience the customs in the setting of its origin… but how different would things be?
Our flight was scheduled to arrive in Poznań; Jurek’s father was to pick us up and drive north to Szczecinek. However, with the heavy fog, after three attempts to land, the pilot landed the plane in Wrocław instead. We were then transported by bus to the other airport, and what should have been a three-hour trip to the intended destination, took seven hours.
It snowed a little each day, and even though it was cold outside, we could not resist taking multiple walks into the center of town each day. It was like a fairytale. We were prepared for winter’s cold with boots, warm coats, hats, scarves and gloves, but were not prepared for the severely frigid temperatures Poland had in store for us. The coldest was -30 C which converts to -22 F. Jurek bought himself a sheepskin kożuch coat, and I borrowed my sister-in-law Halina’s kożuch, which kept me toasty warm.
In the States, school children typically put snowflakes in their windows. I add a Polish twist on this and make wycinanki style snowflakes. I made some for my mother and father-in-law’s windows and then had to make more for my two sisters-in-laws’ windows. No one in Szczecinek had nicer decorated windows.
A Trip to Warsaw and Ornaments
The week before Christmas, we traveled with my sister-in-law Barbara to Warsaw to visit my husband’s niece Daria and her husband Karol, and also my friend Krzysiek Kurlej, the Impressariat-Manager of Mazowsze. We were able to attend a private rehearsal of Mazowsze’s choir as they prepared for an upcoming Christmas concert and could bask in the glory of Poland’s kolédy sung live and in amazing voice.
The Royal Route (Nowy Świat into Krakowskie Przedmieście) leading to Castle Square was decorated with elaborate umbrella-shaped streetlamp fixtures, which made the setting the perfect picture postcard. The Royal Castle was lit with a snowflake projection lightshow and the cone-shaped tree was synchronized for effect. Giant-lit present boxes filled an area where tourists could take holiday photos. A Christmas fair – full of amusement rides was taking place near the Palace of Culture in the center of town; however we did not want to brave the evening’s cold to participate.
I was looking forward to finding and purchasing Christmas ornaments as 99% of our tree has always had ornaments made in Poland. It would surely be the perfect time to find them here. We didn’t see any when we first arrived, but thought that for sure we’d see some the week before Christmas. We eventually saw some very unattractive, yet highly expensive ones in Warsaw. Most stores carry inexpensive plastic ornaments that are made in China. It seems that most of the beautiful Polish ornaments are exported; however I am told that Kraków has an impressive selection. Many homes still have small trees, but larger trees are now available and seem to be purchased by the modern crowd.
We were looking forward to spending Christmas away from all the consumer commercialization. The store windows were decorated nicely. Things have changed over the years, as Poland is more commercialized than before. Small and practical gifts are still exchanged; however in the stores one could hear young children requesting specific toys.
Christmas customs were first introduced to us at the home of my grandparents in Garfield, New Jersey, and now continue with my parents and family in Massachusetts. I was interested in experiencing the differences and regional variations in the way my husband’s family celebrated as they are from a different area in Poland (north vs. south).
Having been home-schooled by my mother in Polish cooking, I was pleased to be able to contribute to the food preparation for Wigila and the days to follow. Two days before, the kitchen was bustling with activity. Jurek’s mother made the filling for the kapusta pierogi, and I made the filling for the uszka (“little ears” – a small and twisted version of pierogi, filled with flavorsome wild forest mushrooms). Since making the tiny-sized uszka is demanding, Jurek’s mother had planned to buy them as they are now available in supermarkets. I insisted that I would make them myself.
The day before the vigil, Halina and I settled down at the table to make the pierogi and uszka. The morning of Wigilia, Jurek and I made Polish vegetable salad (sałatka jarzynowa), as this has become our tradition in recent years.
It seems that many of the new younger generation do not know how to prepare the basic staples of the Wigilia meal. While we were shopping for ingredients, some were shopping for already prepared or packaged barszcz, pierogi, and salads — losing out on a practice that trails down from our great-grandmothers to our mothers. It is this connection to our roots – our past that makes Wigilia a family tradition and a remembrance of those who are no longer with us.
After breaking the opłatek wafer and prayers, we enjoyed grape wine made by my father, which we brought with us. Depending on the area of Poland, barszcz Polski is czerwony (red) or biały (white). The biały barszcz z grzybami (with mushrooms) is common in the southern regions – the area where my family originated from, so it is this variety that I grew up with. Here they are accustomed to barszcz czysty czerwony (a clear beet consommé). Since Jurek became part of the family, I make red for Christmas day; this year I would reverse the order.
I knew that there would be a lot of fish dishes served in the northern Baltic Sea region. In southern Poland it was less likely to be included in such variety in the Wigilia meal. We never had fish with my grandparents; but later introduced it when we started celebrating at home. We would typically have 2-3 dishes compared to the never-ending parade of fish creations here.
With all the focus on fish in the north, there is no room for the southern dishes of grains – kasza buckwheat groats and jaglana millet groats, or kapusta z grochem that I am used to having. The evening was capped with traditional fruit kompot and desserts, such as Daria’s sernik cheesecake, and a nut łamańce – something I’ve never tasted.
Having always attended Midnight Mass at a Polish church in Garfield, N.J. or Haverhill, Mass., I was exposed to the kolędy carols and warmth of a mass in Polish. After St. Michael’s was closed and directed to merge with two other parishes at the former St. Joseph’s Church — now renamed All Saint’s Church, the Polish choir continues to sing, but only on holidays. Although we still have the tradition of singing kolędy, it has never been the same since our church closed.
That evening as we walked to church, I remembered how we once walked to church in Garfield. As the procession started, I felt transported back in time. Tears filled my eyes as I remembered what was and how Midnight Mass used to feel. There was a communal feeling here as the entire parish rose in voice singing the age-old kolędy. This was the truth of a Christmas in Poland I had been in search of.
Christmas Day – meat, meat, meat!
On Christmas Day I am accustomed to typically having ham and leftovers from Wigilia, but here they have numerous amounts of smoked and baked meats - szynka, boczek, polędwica, kiełbasa, and wędzona karkówka. I made a large pot of the biały barszcz — everyone enjoyed it and was amazed that a Polish American could be so savvy at Polish cookery.
The age-old practices based in folk tradition and customs are slowly stepping aside to the modernization of a country that once held onto every aspect of its ethnic identity. Shifts in America’s Polonia have been felt with the changes and challenges in our cultural institutions and church gatherings. Polish Americans cling with a deep nostalgia to the identity engrained in us by our parents. Despite an ever-changing world, what matters most is the sense of bonding, for a Polish Christmas is most importantly being with family.