Christmas Wafer - Oplatek
Sharing of the oplatek (pronounced opwatek) is the most ancient and beloved of all Polish Christmas traditions. Oplatek is a thin wafer made of flour and water, similar in taste to the hosts that are used for communion during Mass. The Christmas wafer is shared before Wigilia, the Christmas Eve supper. The head of the household usually starts by breaking the wafer with his wife and then continues to share it with everyone at the Wigilia table. Wishes for peace and prosperity are exchanged and even the pets and farm animals are given a piece of oplatek on Christmas Eve. Legend has it that if animals eat oplatek on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak in human voices at midnight, but only those who are pure of spirit will be able to hear them.
This tradition dates back many centuries when a thin, flat bread called podplomyk was baked over an open flame and then shared with the family gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve. Patterns would be cut onto the bread to make breaking easier. This is why oplatki today still have patterns on them, usually of Nativity scenes. You can order Oplatki from PWA. Learn how here.
Christmas Eve Dinner - Wigilia
Christmas Eve is the most holy and meaningful day of the year in Poland. It is a day of waiting for and celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. Wigilia comes from the Latin word "vigilare" which means to wait. Early in the day, the women of the family start preparing the meal, which traditionally consists of twelve meatless dishes, and includes many kinds of fish, beet or mushroom soup, various dishes made from cabbage, mushrooms, or potatoes, pierogi, followed by dried fruit compote and pastries for dessert.
While the meal is being cooked, the men and children decorate the Christmas tree and set the table. Hay is usually placed in the corners of the room and on the tablecloth, recalling Christ's humble birth in a stable. An extra place setting is added in memory of those who are not able to join the family for Wigilia. When the first star, gwiazdka, appears in the night sky, the meal can finally begin. A prayer is said first and then the family members share the oplatek and exchange wishes, before sitting down to the meal everyone has been waiting for all year long.
After Wigilia, the family gathers under the tree, choinka, to exchange gifts and sing carols. Shortly before midnight, the family gets ready to go to Midnight Mass called pasterka which means Shepherds' Mass. When Jesus was born, only humble shepherds came to adore him and to spread the good news.
See Wigilia Recipes here.
Christmas Carols - Koledy
The Polish word for Christmas carol is koleda (pronounced kolenda) and it comes from the Latin word "calendae," meaning the first day of the month. Koledy are mostly anonymous, having been created by the Polish people over the centuries. Koledy date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and while they did start out as hymns to be sung during Mass, they quickly found their way out of churches to the populace, where they took on a colorful life of their own.
You can hear strains of Polish folk melodies and popular tunes in many koledy. They are tender and humorous as often as they are joyful or exalted. The miraculous story of the birth of Baby Jesus, the Son of God, in a humble stable, surrounded by animals and shepherds, appealed to the popular imagination and resonated with the people, resulting in the creations of hundreds of carols over the years, both religious and humorous, that retell this story in many different ways. Many koledy are regional and not as well-known as the more traditional ones that we sing in our homes today. Poland has a larger cannon of Christmas carols than any other Christian nation.
Carolers are called kolednicy and they walk from house to house between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, carrying a star on a pole and a Nativity scene. They usually wear folk costumes or dress up as angels, shepherds, kings, sometimes also as devils or the Grim Reaper. They enact Nativity plays, often with a touch of comedy added, along with the singing of carols. They are treated to food and drink and sometimes other gifts in return.
The most beloved Polish koledy include "Gdy sie Chrystus rodzi "(When Christ is Born), "Lulajze Jezuniu," which is a lullaby to Baby Jesus, and "Przybiezeli do Betlejem" (The Shepherds Arrive in Bethlehem).
You can find lyrics of popular Polish Christmas Carols here: http://www.sadurski.com/bozenarodzenie/
Polish Christmas Tree - Choinka
Christmas in Poland has a different timeframe than an American Christmas. The four weeks before Christmas are not spent on decorating, shopping, and parties, but on the spiritual preparation for the Birth of Christ. Advent is a quiet time, spent in anticipation of the holidays and the miracle of Christmas. Handmade ornaments will be made in the evenings and cookies will be baked, and in recent years, gift shopping and wrapping will take place, but the Christmas tree or choinka will not be brought into the home until a day or two before Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, as the women in the family start to prepare the evening meal, Wigilia, the men and children busy themselves with putting up the Christmas tree and decorating it. Polish Christmas ornaments have a very old tradition. They are often made of blown glass and then painted and decorated by hand, so they are very delicate and need to be handled with care. These glass ornaments, called bombki, have many shapes -- some are round, others are shaped like icicles, pine cones, or angels. Other ornaments are made from paper, wood, straw, or hollowed eggs. Fruit, cookies, and candies are sometimes also hung on the tree. At the end, foil icicles and chains made from paper or wooden beads are added, and a large star is placed on top. Small beeswax candles add the final touch. After Wigilia, the candles on the choinka are lit and the family gathers around the tree to open presents and sing Christmas Carols.
The tree will stay up at least through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6th, and sometimes it stays up even until February 2nd, which is Candlemas Day and the official end of the Christmas season in the liturgical calendar. So while the Christmas tree comes later into a Polish home, it also stays much longer than it does in an American home. Christmas parties and Christmas pageants are held all through January, so everyone does get to enjoy their choinka - only that it happens after Christmas -- rather than before!
Nativity Scene - Szopka
Nativity scenes, popular at Christmas in all Christian countries, originated with St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century and spread to Poland quickly afterwards. During the Middle Ages, a live nativity scene, enacted by young men, called jaselka, developed in Poland. Some actors told the Christmas story with the help of wooden and cloth puppets -- and they often employed lots of humor and exaggeration in their renditions. The tradition continues through today, as young men and women go from house to house in the days after Christmas, carrying a nativity scene called a szopka, and reenacting the Christmas story and singing Christmas carols.
In homes and churches, the movable puppets were replaced over time by smaller wooden figurines that were hand-carved and beautifully decorated. In olden times, the figures included not only the Holy Family, stable animals, shepherds, and angels, but also heroes of Polish history such as winged hussars, knights, queens, and kings, as well as legendary figures such as Pan Twardowski, the Warsaw Mermaid, and the Wawel Dragon. Today, the szopki are mostly religious but the hand-carved figures are still beautifully and lovingly created by artists all over the country who pass their skill down to others, generation after generation.
The city of Krakow has its own very colorful szopka tradition that dates back to the 19th century, when Krakow's craftsmen, including masons and woodworkers, began to make them as seasonal decorations in order to earn extra income during the holidays. The custom grew in popularity, with people willing to pay to look at szopka collections, which were often carried door-to-door by carolers, or to buy them for their own homes.
Over the years, the city government decided to support this tradition by announcing the first official Krakow Szopka Competition in December 1937. Since then, with the exception of the World War II years, the competition takes place on the first Thursday of December in the Main Market Square in Krakow, next to the Adam Mickiewicz Monument. The winning szopki are later displayed in the Historical Museum of Krakow.
The elaborate structures can be up to six feet high and three feet wide and they often show the many churches and palaces of Krakow that are their inspiration. The building most often replicated is St. Mary's Basilica with its easily recognizable spires. Other popular buildings that appear in the szopki include Wawel Castle, Sukiennice Hall, and the Barbakan. The humble stable of Bethlehem can often be found on the second floor of the szopka, while the lower floor is filled with historical figures.
If you are ever in Poland in December, be sure to visit Krakow and see some of the szopki displayed in the historic Market Square. Or you can see them at any time of the year in the Historical Museum of Krakow. There is also a beautiful Krakow szopka on display in the PWA Home Office in Chicago.