The Mystery of Christmas Eve in Poland
‘Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm; All is bright…”
The night of 24th to 25th December was celebrated long before Christ in all civilisations of the solar cult. The mystery of the night consists of elements of ancient agricultural rituals, All Souls Day celebrations, and Christian religion practices.
Christmas Eve night, in Polish Wigilia, opens a new period in nature, coming as it does around the winter solstice, and announces the birth of the ‘sun’ in the Christian religion – the son of justice, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
In Poland, Wigilia is celebrated especially solemnly. The mystery of the night appears in all aspects: time, place, food and people’s behaviour.
The signal to start the Wigilia supper is not dictated by the clock, but rather by the appearance of the first star in the sky, which reminds us of the comet that appeared over Bethlehem to announce the birth of Christ and guide the shepherds and the three kings to the stable.
The celebration takes place at home, where all the members of the family meet for the Wigilia supper. The ceremony starts with the opłatek, a thin white wafer, the symbol of the holy bread. Each member of the family – and guests, of course – takes a wafer, and they offer it to each other one by one, each breaking off a small piece and exchanging special best wishes for the coming year. The breaking of the symbolic bread is meant to bring peace to the whole house and provide the family with enough bread for the coming year to share with others. The wafer is even given to pets and animals at the farms, as they were present at Christ’s birth. There is an old belief that animals can speak at midnight.
After the opłatek, the solemn supper begins. This supper is unique. Firstly, it is meatless (a tradition connected with the ancient celebration of All Souls Day). Next, the menu in particular. It must consist of something from the garden (vegetable salads and a special dessert from poppy seeds); from the field (potatoes, grain, i.e. bread); from the orchard (fruit, nuts); from the forest (mushrooms, honey, cranberries); and something from the water (fish, especially carp and herring). There are thirteen traditional dishes on the table, as there were twelve apostles and Christ.
The table is covered with a white tablecloth under which is put some hay to remind us that Christ was born in the stable in poverty. There must always be one spare place at the table for an unexpected guest, a custom connected with the old belief that the souls of the dead members of the family might visit home that evening.
The traditional menu varies according to the region and family customs, but usually, for starters, there is herring prepared in several ways, a vegetable salad and cold fish. Then soup is served – mushroom soup or red barszcz (borscht) with traditional uszka (small, baked pierogi with mushroom stuffing). For the second course, there is usually fried or baked fish prepared in several ways: with a wine sauce, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, and so on, and served with potatoes and a dish of cabbage with mushrooms, or in some regions simply many kinds of pierogi.
There are two traditional Christmas cakes: makowiec, a strudel with poppy seeds, and piernik, a cake made from honey with spices, cinnamon and ginger. There is also a dessert made out of ground poppy seeds with fresh cream, eggs, honey, raisins and almonds served with cookies. There should also be a cranberry kisiel (a kind of jelly) and compote made from sun-dried fruits such as plums, pears (and sometimes with figs). The abundance of food on the table should bring family prosperity for the coming year. The dishes made from poppy seeds, especially, symbolise plenty, bringing abundance and wealth.
After the dessert, there is time for singing carols and receiving Christmas presents. If there are children at the family, they await the arrival of Święta Mikołaj (St Nicolas or Father Christmas) bearing presents. If there are no children, the presents are put under the Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree decorations are powerfully symbolic. The lights bring God’s blessing on the house. The bright and colourful glass balls are to protect the house against evil and bring joy and happiness. The colourful chains are for strengthening family relations. The pierniki cookie decorations provide abundance, while apples bring health and beauty to the girls and women of the family. If you eat a nut from the Christmas tree, it has the magical power of bringing love to you.
The ceremonial Wigilia supper, the Christmas tree lights and the carol singing together create the extraordinary joyful climate of the holy night. The ceremony lasts till midnight when the whole family goes to church to Christmas Mass.
The next two days of Christmas are also unusual but don’t have this unique and magic charm of the Polish Christmas Eve.
What is your Christmas?