Traditions, Values and Young People
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We are students from Poland and we would like to tell you about our Polish Christmas customs and traditions.
Christmas is the most festive holiday in Poland. We spend this time with the closest family. With the beginning of December we start frantic preparations, we tidy our homes, send some Christmas cards, and look for gifts.
Poland is a deeply Catholic country, so lots of traditions originate from our religion. According to the Church the Christmas period starts with Advent on 4th December. You have to know that advent is a four-week period of waiting for Jezus Christ to be born. But for most of us 6th December (Saint Nicholas Day) is more important, because of gifts we can find not in colorful socks on the fireplace, but under our pillows.
There is also another nice custom. We exchange gifts in schools and you don't know who this gift is from. We prepare small pieces of paper with names of everyone in the class, mix them, them everyone draws one and keeps it a secret. It depends on you - you can buy a present or make it by yourself, which is more valued, but the presents should be original, surprising and funny. Then we all bring the presents to school, put them under the Christmas tree, and then everyone gets a present not knowing who it is from.
And then the work starts. The busiest persons are our mothers and grandmothers. They prepare all the dishes, decorate and tidy the homes. A few days before Christmas Eve the whole family decorate the Christmas tree. In traditional homes we use unusual decorations like handmade ornaments, sweets or angels made of straw or wool. But the most beautiful and popular decorations are beautifully painted balls made of very thin glass - we call it 'bombka'. When foreigners come to our country for Christmas they are always surprised by the beauty of these glass bulbs and want to take one or two with them.
We also decorate our school - classrooms and hall. There's always a lot of fun with it. Beside it's a good excuse not to have classes … And then Christmas Eve comes. We have to say that in Poland 24th of December is the most important day of Christmas period and it's called "Wigilia". The culminating point of this day the supper. In connection with all this preparing and very domestic atmosphere Christmas Eve is probably the most beautiful day for all of us, especially for children. For them it's very magical and mysterious. The mood of a fairy tale becomes real for a few hours.
It is an old custom to wait with the supper until the first star shines in the sky. When this happens and the whole family comes we start enjoying this breathtaking evening. This is a moment of grief for those who are gone forever and at the same time a moment of hope for happiness, eternally burning in human hearts. Then everyone takes a piece of Christmas wafer in his hands, which symbolize the Body of Jesus Christ. It's very thin, flat and crisp. Family members and friends break off a small piece of the wafer and give it to one another along with a blessing. Breaking off and exchanging part of it with someone is a symbol of forgiveness between two people and is meant to remind participants of the importance of Christmas, God, and family. We don't break off a wafer only in homes but also on the last day before holidays at work or at school.
After exchanging greetings we sit down to Christmas Eve supper. There are some Christmas customs connected with table setting. You can always find some blades of hay under the tablecloth. Moreover we put a carp's scale under every plate. For good luck. Probably the finest Old Polish Christmas custom was to invite some lonely people for Christmas Eve supper, but nowadays we just leave an extra place at the table, because on that particular evening no one should be alone. In some homes before eating you read a fragment of the Holy Bible and say grace.
Now I would like to tell you something about the Polish Christmas dishes. First of all there is a tradition that you have to try 12 of them. This guarantees you luck and prosperity in the New Year. Now a few words about them: First of all a dish that must be present on every Christmas table - borscht with uszka. It's red beet soup. Uszka are small dumplings filled with mushrooms and cabbage. It's hot and very tasty. Next one is carp. It's our Polish Christmas-fish. There are lots of ways to prepare it. Carp may be served in jelly, or fried or roast. Pierogi - dumplings stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms. Fried or boiled. Mushroom soup - a soup served with Lazanki - which are flat pieces of pasta in the shape of small squares. And the herring. Again you can prepare it in several ways, for example with oil and onion, with garlic or with cream. And kutya - it's a kind of pudding made of poppy seeds, honey, nuts, raisins and pieces of oranges.
During Christmas Eve we traditionally don't eat meat and don't drink alcohol as, until recently, this was the last day of fasting. This has changed now, but many families still observe the old custom. After that we make coffee or tea and start next part of 'Wigilia'. Cakes, sweets, nuts, raisins and fruits appears on tables. There are lots of different cakes you can find on a Polish Christmas table. Definitely the most popular are the poppy seed cake, ginger cake, and various home-made Christmas cookies.
An interesting detail is that we open our presents on Christmas Eve after supper. We always long for this moment. Depending on the region people believe that gifts are brought by Santa Claus or Baby Jesus. Anyway, they are stacked under the Christmas tree, and then given out by the oldest or the youngest member of the family. After that we sing Christmas carols. This is related to a less and less popular custom, which is called "the carolers". It's a group of young people, who are dressed in various disguises (e.g. as a devil, an angel, a shepherd or as death) and carrying a large colorful star on a stick, visiting homes and singing carols.
At midnight everybody meets in the church and the midnight mass begins. The beautiful setting of this mass makes even people who are not Christian come to see it. Every year in churches there is an exhibition of Christmas nativity scenes. Often they are handmade by children. The most popular cradles are from Cracow. They are very fancy and you have to work really hard to create something like this.
According to a custom of Christmas cheer, any male and female who meet under a hanging mistletoe are obliged to kiss. There is also a Polish superstition that at midnight on Christmas Eve domestic animals start talking with human voices. So far nobody has heard them.
Now we would like to tell you how we celebrate Christmas in our absolutely fantastic school. The story begins when we bake cakes together and prepare some snacks. We meet in someone's house, bring with us all the ingredients and family recipes, and together bake cakes that we later take to school. Obviously we have a lot of fun doing this. Usually School Christmas Eve begins on the last day of school before holidays. Students, teachers, graduates, and parents meet at the gym. We sing carols, break off a wafer and say greetings. The atmosphere is amazing! In our school we share handmade gifts at this school event.
We spend Christmas Day and day after it meeting members of family that we weren't able to meet on Christmas Eve and visiting friends. When it comes to these days, the most important meal is dinner. Then we drink alcohol, especially wine, eat bigos and lots of cakes. Bigos is a dish made of cabbage, mushrooms, prunes, apples, onions and a glass of high-quality red wine. For me - the best Christmas dish!
And then the atmosphere disappears and you have to tidy your home again … But I think we can skip this part … Yes. Christmas ends on 27th December when most of adults go back to work, but the students have their holiday until New Year's day. The 2nd of January is the day we are back at school.