Polish customs, especially at Christmas time, are both beautiful and meaningful.
The preparations for Christmas begin many days before the actual celebration. Nearly everywhere women are cleaning windows in apartments and houses just before Christmas. The insides of the houses are also cleaned thoroughly. It is believed that if a house is dirty on Christmas Eve, it will remain dirty all next year.
Weather-forecasting is quite popular during Christmas. Everything that happens on Christmas, including the weather, has an impact on the following year. The weather on Easter and throughout the next year supposedly depends upon the weather on Christmas (snow, rain etc). Only a white Christmas is considered a real Christmas; therefore, everybody is happy when there is fresh snow outside.
Some ceremonies take place before the Christmas Eve supper. Among farmers, a popular ritual is the blessing of the fields with holy water and the placing of crosses made from straw into the four corners. It is also believed that animals can speak with a human voice.
Straw is put under white tablecloth. Some maidens predict their future from the straw. After supper, they pull out blades of straw from beneath the tablecloth. A green one foretells marriage; a withered one signifies waiting; a yellow one predicts spinsterhood; and a very short one foreshadows an early grave.
Poles are famous for their hospitality, especially during Christmas. In Poland, an additional seat is kept for somebody unknown at the supper table. No one should be left alone at Christmas, so strangers are welcomed to the Christmas supper. This is to remind us that Mary and Joseph were also looking for shelter. In Poland, several homeless people were interviewed after Christmas. Some of them were invited to strangers' houses for Christmas; others that were not asked inside the homes but were given lots of food.
It is still strongly believed that whatever occurs on Wigilia (Christmas Eve) has an impact on the coming year. So, if an argument should arise, a quarrelsome and troublesome year will follow. In the morning, if the first visiting person is a man, it means good luck; if the visitor is a woman, one might expect misfortune. Everyone, however, is glad when a mailman comes by, for this signifies money and success in the future. To assure good luck and to keep evil outside, a branch of mistletoe is hung above the front door. Finally, old grudges should end. If, for some reason, you do not speak with your neighbor, now is the time to forget old ill feelings and to exchange good wishes.
Traditionally, the Christmas tree is decorated on the Wigilia day - quite an event for children. The custom of having a Christmas tree was first introduced in Alsace (today a region of eastern France) at the end of the 15th century. Three centuries later, it was common around the world. Early on, the tree was decorated with apples to commemorate the forbidden fruit - the apple of paradise (the garden of Eden). Today, the Christmas tree is adorned with apples, oranges, candies and small chocolates wrapped in colorful paper, nuts wrapped in aluminum foil, hand-blown glass ornaments, candles or lights, thin strips of clear paper (angel's hair), and home-made paper chains. The latter, however, has become rarer because commercially produced aluminum foil chains are being sold.
Christmas and Santa Claus Day are not celebrated at the same time in Poland, but rather three weeks apart. Santa Claus (called Mikolaj) Day is celebrated on December 6th, the name day of St. Nicholas. This is when St. Nicholas visits some children in person or secretly during the night.
Christmas Day, called the first holiday by the Poles, is spent with the family at home. No visiting, cleaning, nor cooking are allowed on that day; only previously cooked food is heated. This is a day of enjoyment, for Jesus was born. On Christmas Day, people start to observe the weather very closely. It is believed that each day foretells the weather for a certain month of the following year. Christmas Day predicts January's weather, St. Stephen's Day impacts February's, etc.
St. Stephen's Day is known as the second holiday. This is a day for visiting and exchanging Christmas greetings. When night begins to fall, you can hear stamping and jingling, followed by Christmas carol singing outside. Carolers begin their wandering from home to home. Herody, a popular form of caroling, is a live performance usually played by twelve young boys. Dressed in special costumes, they include King Herod, a field marshal, a knight, a soldier, an angel, a devil, death, a Jew, Mary, shepherds, and sometimes the Three Kings and an accordionist. They sing pastoral songs and carols, and when let into a house, perform scenes from King Herod's life. Oration and songs vary and depend upon to whom they are being addressed: the owner of the house, a young woman about to be married, a widow, etc. At the conclusion, the performers are offered refreshments and some money. Also popular is caroling with a crib (szopka) and with a star. Usually, those are items are carried by three caroling teenagers. They, too, are given some money.
The Breaking of the Oplatek
One of the most beautiful and most revered Polish customs is the breaking of the
oplatek. The use of the Christmas wafer (oplatek) is not only by native Poles in Poland but also by people of Polish ancestry all over the world.
The oplatek is a thin wafer made of flour and water. For table use, it is white. In Poland, colored wafers are used to make Christmas tree decorations. In the past, the wafers were baked by organists or by religious and were distributed from house to house in the parish during Advent. Today, they are produced commercially and are sold in religious stores and houses. Sometimes an oplatek is sent in a greeting card to loved ones away from home.
On Christmas Eve, the whole family gathers and waits impatiently for the appearance of the first star. With its first gleam, they all approach a table covered with hay and a snow-white tablecloth. A vacant chair and a place setting are reserved for an unexpected guest, always provided for in hospitable Polish homes.
The father or eldest member of the family reaches for the wafer, breaks it in half and gives one half to the mother. Then, each of them breaks a small part from each other's piece. They wish one another a long life, good health, joy and happiness, not only for the holiday season, but also for the new year and for many years to come. This ceremony is repeated between the parents and their children as well as among the children; then, the wafer and good wishes are exchanged with all those present, including relatives and even strangers. When this activity is over, they all sit down and enjoy a tasty though meatless supper, after which they sing koledy (Christmas carols and pastorals) until time for midnight Mass, also know as Pasterka ("the Mass of the Shepherds").