Boże Narodzenie, Christmas, Mele Kalikimaka, or Krishtlindje – this unique holiday season is celebrated around the Globe in many many ways. Some countries do not celebrate Christmas Eve at all; for some a goose, a duck or a roasted pig is the main Christmas Eve dish, for other yet fasting on Christmas Eve by refraining from eating meat is the most important ritual for adults and as for the kids they simply cannot wait for the dinner to be over so the presents can be opened; there are countries where gifts are gotten on Christmas mornings; other where gifts are given three weeks before Christmas and these where no gifts are exchanged on the occasion. Still, the Christian religion is the common thread, but the individual traditions stem from each country individual anthropology – or the Tradition if you so wish.
And what about the Polish Christmas?
Quite traditional, relatively similar everywhere and still somewhat different for each family. Although the tradition seems to be the same for all, it’s still individualized to be their own by each family. Some decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, others as early as it’s becoming (what is and is not becoming is still very obligatory for some people). There are those who splurge on the „best of the best” for the Christmas feast at the choicest supermarkets and boutique shops. Others say buuuuuu to that and make everything from scratch. Still others compromise and buy some delicacies at the store and slave over the stove and the oven following the old recipes scribbled by Grandmas, Aunts and Moms to make the rest from scratch.
When it comes to food, Poland, as any other country has its regional traditions and varieties: in here mandatory is the mushroom broth, somewhere else it is the red beet consommé, still somewhere else it will be the pope seed and honey noodles, but somewhere else there shall be the square noodles with mushroom and sauerkraut, still somewhere else there is no Christmas Eve without mushroom and sauerkraut dumplings and mushroom pancakes. All and all, however, there is an agreement that the number of Christmas Eve specials shall be twelve and that there is no Christmas Eve without carp. So, let’s take the Polish Christmas step by step.
Step 1: carp, especially the Royal Carp
The Zator Carp Valley spreads over hundreds of hectares the basin of the Vistula, Skawa and Wieprzówka rivers. Its story and fame of carp fishing dates to XV century, when the newly caught fish was presented straight to the King’s castle and that’s how it took its moniker “the Royal Carp”. It is worthwhile to visit Zator in the Summer for the “Carp Day” – the festivities last for various days and entice hundreds of fishermen, lovers of grilled and smoked fish, fun and, good music. While here you can also visit the „Zatorland” with its Dinosaur and Mythology and St. Nicolaus parks or get “wild and free” at “Energyland” – the Poland’s largest amusement park. CHECK HERE
Step 2: the Christmas wafer and the hay under the table cloth
For the buffs of the Christmas tradition, there is no Christmas without the hay under the tablecloth and the breakage of the Christmas wafer when sharing Christmas good wishes. Even though both customs predate Christianity, both have been adopted as the „traditional and forever” Christmas customs and rites. At family dinners is always the eldest female who begins the „Wafer breaking” with the rest of the family members. It is a custom specific to Poland and some parts of Lithuania that are inhabited by large Polish population.
Step 3: the extra table setting for the traveler
The Christmas Eve tradition calls for an extra table setting and chair. This is an old and charming custom according to which no traveler should be sent away from your door on Christmas Eve. It was this very custom that was most appreciated and admired by my friends almost to the point of envy. One of my Washington based friends who invited me to the Easter breakfast tried to adopt that custom by setting an extra table setting. I remember how very disappointed he was to find out that that customs were reserved solely for Christmas Eve.
Step 4: the Christmas tree and the trimmings
Question number one – should it be a live tree or artificial? The tradition says “live” the reason says “artificial” (for me it’s always the live tree), but as always, it’s the family tradition that wins. In the old days when money was scarce and store-bought decorations were reserved for the rich it was the Granddads and Grannies who sat with the kids for long evenings prior to Christmas cutting, gluing and sawing the trimmings for the Christmas tree. Today, Poland is among the most recognized exporters of handmade Christmas decorations and affordable factory-made trimmings can be bought everywhere. But, those who still prefer a singular self-designed tree may and should visit Łowicz. In this small and famous for its unique folklore city nearby Warsaw you can buy the most unique and colorful Christmas decorations for your tree and table. Located only a few miles from Łowicz is Bolimów, where you can visit a traditional pottery workshop and buy or better yet make your own platter or a bowl to serve your Christmas delicacies. (Here a link to our Łowicz tour)
Step 5: the Christmas gingerbread cookies
While, the Granddads and the kids busied themselves with the tree trimmings and the fathers were „hunting” for the best tree, the Grannies, Aunts and Moms were baking the pies, cakes and the gingerbread cookies. After being decorated with colored sugar coating the gingerbread cookies made the best and most importantly edible tree ornaments. Despite it’s time consuming and labor-intensive character the custom of baking the gingerbread cookies is experiencing its Renaissance. For many households it is the making of the gingerbread cookies that marks the start of the Christmas season.
The European tradition of gingerbread cookies dates to the XV century. Some allege that the cookies originated in the Netherlands, others say than it was the Armenian Monk who passed the recipe to the French. However, others assert that it was the crusaders who brought them to Europe and for whom they had a medicinal purpose as supposedly having the power to cure stormed illnesses. However, others say that the Polish Gentry loved the gingerbread cookies as edible bit when drinking vodka. The legend also says that Fryderyk Chopin fancied gingerbread cookies. (HERE link to our Chopin tours)
In medieval Poland the gingerbread was known under the name of the „honey bread” as it was made mostly of flour and honey. It was a sort of a ripening dough and it could be kept for a long time in a cellar prior to baking. The traditional „honey bread” was usually made at the birth of a daughter and kept in the cellar until her wedding to be finally baked for the wedding festivity. Later, ginger bread made his way onto the holiday table, but since making it was labor intensive it was made only once a year in the winter and kept for 12 months to be baked for the next Christmas holiday.
Even today, with all the modern baking technology the gingerbread, still needs time for maturing. Therefore, we start making gingerbread cookies at least a month prior to Christmas. Honey is still the main ingredient and Poland being the world exporter of honey is the perfect country for the gingerbread industry. Those, short of time or baking talent must satisfy themselves with buying gingerbread cookies, but in Poland it is a great adventure, especially if you can visit the only one in the world Live Gingerbread museum in Toruń. CHECK HERE
Step 6: the presents
This is a universal tradition. Regardless whether it is Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or three weeks before it – every child and every adult alike know that the Christmas season if for giving and receiving gifts. In my childhood the presents would appear under the tree during the Christmas Eve night and me and my sister would get up early on Christmas day to look for our presents. Now in my own house the presents are placed under the tree, best when nobody is watching, just before the Christmas Eve dinner and the kids can hardly withstand the waiting through the dinner. At our house presents are usually just for the kids, but they love to make their own presents for the Grandparents, aunts and uncles and we usually work on making these throughout December. This year, in addition to hand decorated gingerbread cookies we are working on decorative felt cut-outs, handmade book marks, hand painted cups and mugs and homemade soaps and liqueurs. Ideas and for gifts from Poland will be published soon in our Blog under the „current info” heading.
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