New Year’s Eve – Sylwester (sil-VEST-er)
New Year’s Eve in Poland’s major cities is often celebrated by way of a formal ball. Some of which have a long history as for example the one sponsored by the Warsaw Philharmonic Society or the ball at the castle in Golub-Dobrzyn. Traditionally the New Year’s Eve ball always begins with a polonaise, an elegant court dance.
In the countryside, New Year’s Eve day may provide an excuse for some pranks. In the past if was not unusual for the village jokers to disassemble somebody’s wagon and reassemble it on the roof of a house, or to smear windows and doorknobs with tar. In the Żywiec region groups of boys disguised as devils, bears, and beggars would scour the village whilst rattling empty cans, they would accost any young woman they came across and knock her down in the snow. All tricks are forgiven, however, for they are believed to be the ousting of the old passing year.
Both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were considered an opportunity for fortune telling. New Year’s Eve predictions were considered especially powerful if no crosses or belts were worn and no blessings were requested. Typical rituals to ascertain the identity of a future spouse included looking into the steamed mirror after a bath on New Years Eve to see the person’s face; or sleeping on a log to see the person’s face in a dream. Another method was to catch the moon’s reflection in a mirror, which would then reveal the future spouse’s name. Many Poles would carry fish scales in their wallet as a means of ensuring prosperity in the coming year.
New Year’s Day
One important highlight of New Year’s Day was bread baking. Animals were shaped from dough—sheep, rabbits, geese, cows, and birds. Godparents often gave these breads to godchildren as presents. In some areas of Poland, paczkior donuts were baked to assure wealth for the coming year. The circle is seen as a representation of life coming full circle. Bread in the shapes of a ring or a cross were hidden at the dinner table and used for fortune telling. If someone found a ring, marriage awaited; a cross—entry into the clergy.
Traditions to ensure luck and prosperity in the forthcoming year include “Wake up early on New Year’s Day, wake up early for the rest of the year;” “Touch the floor with the right foot when getting out of bed, expect a lot of good luck for the whole year;” and “To get rich, put coins in a small bag and run through the fields shaking the bag, making a lot of noise.”
Traditionally, New Year’s Day was a time for prediction called podbljunaja or “under the plate.” One such practice is where each person takes a ring off his or her finger and places it into a bowl filled with water. A plate covers the bowl and songs are sung. At the end of each song, a ring is pulled out and the fate that the song foretells is believed to apply to the owner of that ring. Some Podbljudnaja foretell a wedding, some wealth, some a journey. In some cases, the participants create their own songs for the divination ritual and use some traditional symbolisms. Bread, grain, millet, and rye symbolize fulfillment and material security; gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fur, and expensive cloth symbolize luxury and wealth. Doing things together such as eating, drinking, working, standing or sitting together, symbolizes love and happy marriages. The songs are usually short since one quickly follows another. Traditionally, each refrain ends with a praiseworthy word such as “glory.”Another such ritual of prediction was if a thread hangs from one’s clothing, wrap it around a finger while reciting the alphabet. Whichever letter is reached when the thread is fully wrapped is the initial of the reciter’s future spouse. The color of the thread is also important; pale thread for a blonde spouse, dark for a brunette.
Best wishes, health and happiness for the New Year
Author of The Cypher Bureau –how the Poles solved Enigma
Christmas is traditionally the most important festive celebration in Poland and plays a major role in Polish culture and tradition. The customs relating to this celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ have been observed with reverence for generations. Polish families decorate a Christmas tree, share Christmas wafers, sing Christmas carols and exchange gifts.
On Christmas Eve, twenty-fourth December, immediately after sunset, children begin to search for the first star to appear in the sky. The sign that the official Christmas-Eve dinner can begin. The most important moment of the celebration involves sharing the Christmas wafer and exchanging best wishes. This is a sign of reconciliation, love, friendship and peace, but above all of forgiveness.
Only after the wafer is shared, can family members sit at the prepared table. Usually, the hostess places hay straws under a white table cloth, which are later taken out by people sitting at the table. A long and straight straw bodes a good year without problems or complications. An additional place is set for a stray wanderer or an unexpected guest, who should not be alone on such a special day. An empty place is also a sign of remembrance for deceased relatives.
On Christmas Eve, traditionally either twelve fasting dishes are served, symbolising twelve months or twelve apostles or an odd number of dishes are prepared. There could be five, seven, or even eleven of them. Legend has it that the more varied the food, the greater the prosperity that will befall the participants of the meal.
Historical accounts show that originally Christmas Eve dinner was prepared only from the fruit of earth: agricultural produce and fruit of the forest, rivers, ponds and lakes. This way, peasants paid homage to Mother Earth. Meals consisting of fish, considered fasting by the Church, were initially eaten on Christmas Eve mostly in fishing households and in manors and monasteries, and similar places which would have their own fish-breeding ponds, which were quite frequent in Poland.
With time, carp has become the most important fish meal on Christmas Eve in Poland. On Christmas Eve, they are usually served fried with grated horseradish or in jelly accompanied with vegetables. In the past they used to be served in a grey sauce, called the Polish sauce comprised of fish blood and wine.
Apart from carp, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Poland includes borscht soup made of beetroot or mushrooms with ravioli-type dumplings with mushroom filling, pierogi with cabbage and mushrooms, as well as salads and fish, including herrings prepared in many different ways. Christmas desserts include poppy seed rolls, honey-cakes, shortcakes with almonds, nuts and raisins, as well as stewed apple, pear and plum compote. Kutia (wheat with poppy seeds and honey), in turn, is a relic of old rites in honour of the deceased.
The tradition of decorating Christmas trees came to Poland from Germany in the 18th century. Prior to that people would hang the top of a fir, a pine or a spruce from the roof, and place a sheaf of corn in the corner. The tree was meant to protect the house and its inhabitants from evil. The star that is often put at the top of the tree symbolises the Star of Bethlehem. Decorated with trinkets and other ornaments, the Christmas tree usually stays in the house until Epiphany (6 January).
After the feast, at midnight, people go to church for the Midnight Mass commemorating the prayer of shepherds who waited for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Author The Cypher Bureau –how the Poles solved Enigma
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Declaration of war in 1914 saw thousands of young men set off for war with carefree optimism, fuelled by nationalistic pride. Innocent promises were made to loved ones on parting that they would be ‘home for Christmas.’
By Christmas eve 1914, Seven hundred and fifty thousand men had been killed in the most bloody conflict imaginable. Troops on the front line, of the Western front which stretched from the edge of the English Channel to Switzerland were suffering, both sides were poorly equipped for a bitter winter in hastily constructed trenches.
The opposing armies lines in some cases were as little as forty metres apart and the ‘no man’s land ‘ in between was littered with decaying corpses.
In an attempt to raise the morale of the despairing troops, Princess Mary arranged a fund to send brass embossed tinder boxes to the British troops with a present inside. The contents varied for smoking and non -smoking soldiers and also according to the religious persuasion of the recipient. Some boxes contained tobacco, a tinder lighter, chocolate and cigarettes, others chocolate, writing pen and notepad, others spices and sweets. The boxes contained a Christmas card from Princess Mary and a message from King George ‘May God protect you and bring you safely home.’ The soldiers were also sent plum pudding.
Kaiser Wilhelm sent miniature Christmas trees decorated with candles, and beer to the front line. Soldiers were sent a meerschaum pipe and officers and NCO’s cigars.
French and Belgium troops were also sent presents but as these countries were occupied, it was more difficult.
The ‘Christmas Truce’ was not a uniform event. In some parts of the trenches the fighting and killing continued. In other parts peace broke out for three days.
The soldiers who made the first move and bravely stuck their head above the parapet of their trench risked their lives. The soldiers on the opposing sides who did not shoot their enemy risked being shot themselves for treason. This was an extraordinary event.
Superior officers on both sides of the trenches were critical of the event.
Corporal Adolf Hitler, 16th Bavarian Regimentwho had spent the day in the cellar of an Abbey near Ypres is reported to have said, on discovering that had truce of sorts had taken place “Some-thing like that should not happen in wartime. Have you no German honour.”
The London Rifle Brigade's War Diary for 2 January 1915 recorded that “informal truces with the enemy were to cease and any officer or [non-commissioned officer] found to having initiated one would be tried by Court Martial.”
It is impossible to imagine the circumstances these soldiers found themselves in. Whilst much has been written about ‘the Christmas Truce,’ for me, nothing can be more eloquent than the words of those who were there, taking a moment from the horror around them to describe the extraordinary events.
The messages from these voices from 1914 must surely be
‘Peace’- not just for Christmas.
You will hardly credit what I am going to tell you. Listen. Last night as I sat in my little dug-out, writing, my chum came bursting in upon me with: ‘Bob! hark at ’em!’ And I listened.
From the German trenches came the sound of music and singing. My chum continued.
‘They’ve got Christmas trees all along the top of their trenches — I never saw such a sight!’
Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of their line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees.
Sergeant A. Lovell, 3rd Rifle Brigade.
What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches — by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items.
A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.
Josef Wenzl, German soldier.
At daylight on Christmas Day we went halfway and met the Germans and exchanged cigars and cigarettes with one another. They seemed a poor lot of boys and men of forty with beards. One fellow had been employed as a waiter at the Grand Hotel Eastbourne for ten years and said he wished he was back again.
Private H. Dixon, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. That thanks to soccer and Christmas, the feast of Love, deadly enemies briefly came together as friends... I told them we didn’t want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas either. They agreed.
Kurt Zehmisch, 134 Saxons.
They said they were going to keep up the truce for three days and they were as good as their word; there was not a single shot exchanged. We could knock about just the same as if peace was declared; in fact, some of our fellows were playing football along the firing line — rather a curious affair after such revengeful attacks on one another.
Unnamed Private, Seaforth Highlanders.
Really you would hardly have thought we were at war. Here we were, enemy talking to enemy. They [are] like ourselves with mothers, with sweethearts, with wives waiting to welcome us home again. And to think within a few hours we shall be firing at each other again.
Gunner Masterton, Royal Artillery.
Author The Cypher Bureau- how the Poles solved Enigma
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