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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