Poland is a land rich with culture and age-old traditions, of which the Polish are proud of. Polish customs are both beautiful and meaningful, and they are still holding on to up to this very day. During Christmas time especially, many of these traditions are still practiced at large.
Christmas Eve in Poland is called Gwiazdka, which means "Little Star", named after the star of Bethlehem. As soon as the star appears in the sky, everyone would be exchanging well-wishes and get together for the year's most important meal, the Christmas supper called Wigilia. A traditional Wigiliameal is wholly vegetarian, but these days, the Polish would sometimes include a meat dish or two. According to tradition, the host must ensure that an even number of people is seated around the dining table, or somebody might die in the coming year.
Christmas preparations in Poland begin days before the day itself. As Christmas nears, Polish women can be seen cleaning their homes thoroughly inside out, as it is believed that a dirty house on Christmas Eve will stay dirty throughout the coming year, and this will only invite bad luck. Some rituals also take place before Christmas Eve; one such ritual is of farmers going around "blessing" their fields and crops with holy water after which crosses made from straw are placed on four corners of the field. This is done in the hope that they will be blessed with healthy, fruitful crops in the new year.
In Poland, Wigilia is more than just a meal on Christmas Eve. It is a highly-symbolic event and brings about many significances, a sort of divination which foretells what is in store for the coming year. Sometimes, some straws are placed beneath the white tablecloth which covers the dining table, especially if maiden guests are present for the supper. It is believed that their futures can be predicted from those straws. After supper, the unmarried ladies will pull out the blades of straw from beneath the tablecloth: a green straw signifies marriage is in the cards; a withered straw signifies that more waiting is to be expected and that the lady is not going to tie the knot anytime soon; a yellow straw means that the lady is destined to a lifetime of spinsterhood, and a very short straw means an early death for the lady, which is often, for many maidens, the most dreaded straw to draw out.
During Wigilia, an additional seat, left unoccupied throughout the night, will be reserved at the dining table, to ensure that in case The Holy Ghost decides to sit in with them during supper, a place is already made available. The Polish also believe that nobody should spend Christmas alone, so it is the norm in Poland to invite strangers to join them for supper. This act as a reminder for the Polish that once, Mary and Joseph were also looking for shelter and relied on the kindness of strangers. In Poland, it is not unusual to see the homeless joining other families in their homes for supper on Christmas Eve.
It is also strongly believed that whatever occurs on Wigilia has strong influences on what will occur in the coming year. Therefore, the Polish will go to great lengths to ensure that everything goes smoothly and amicably during their Wigilia. If an argument breaks during the meal, a tempestuous and troubled year is believed to loom ahead. In the morning of Christmas Eve, the gender of the first person to visit the home also carries significance. If the person is a man, good luck awaits, but on the other hand, if the person turns out to be a woman, misfortune lies ahead. If a mailman swings by, this means money and success in the coming year. But just to be on the safe side, the Polish will make sure that a branch of mistletoe is hung above the front door to ward off evil spirits and misfortune and attract good luck.
Traditionally, the Christmas tree is only decorated on Christmas Eve, usually by the children. During the early days, the tree was decorated only with apples in remembrance of the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. Nowadays, they are also decorated with oranges, candies, chocolates, nuts, baubles, candles, lights and other Christmas tree ornaments usually found on modern trees.
In Poland, Santa Claus doesn't pay a visit on Christmas Eve. Instead, there is a separate day for Santa Claus to come for a visit called St.Nicholas Day, which occurs almost 3 weeks earlier on December the 6th. It is on this day that St. Nicholas or Santa Claus distributes gifts to the children.
The Christmas Day itself is often referred to by the Polish as "the first holiday". This is the day when everyone will sit back and relax with their family at home, after an eventful supper the night before. No visiting, cleaning, cooking or any kind of work is allowed that day; the food to be eaten on this day is either prepared earlier or reheated from the previous night's supper. To the Polish, this is a day to rejoice and enjoy oneself, as this is the day that Jesus was born. The day after Christmas Day, called St. Stephen's Day (in some parts of the world it is called "Boxing Day"), is also known as "the second holiday". On this day, the Polish will visit each other to exchange well-wishes for the coming year. At nightfall, the lawns will be filled with the sounds of jingling bells and Christmas carols, going from one home to the next. The singing varies from one home to another, depending on whose house it is, for example, a young woman, a family, a childless widower, etc. At the end of the performance, the carolers are given some refreshments and maybe some money, too.
The breaking of the oplatek, a thin wafer made of flour and water, forms a significant part of the Christmas celebrations in Poland. In the old days, the wafers were often baked by religious authorities and distributed to all the houses in the parish during Advent. Nowadays, it is more commercially available and is sold in religious houses and shops.
On Christmas Eve, during a Wigulia, the head of the family (often the father or the eldest member of the family) reaches for an oplatek, breaks it in two and hands one half to the mother, or the woman of the house. After that, each of them breaks a small piece from each other's wafer and wishes each other a long and prosperous life, good health, joy, and happiness, not just for the season, but for the years to come. This ritual is repeated amongst other family members and guests at the table, including invited strangers. After this opening ritual, everyone will sit down and enjoy supper. At the end of supper, they will all get together and sing koledy (Christmas carols and hymns) until it's time for the midnight Mass, also know as Pasterka, or "Mass of The Shepherds". Christmas is indeed a truly special occasion in Poland, where family, friends and strangers alike get together to celebrate this special day. For a truly traditional Christmas experience, head on over to Poland - who knows, you might just get invited to a Wigilia!