Celebrate the Christmas season with That Artsy Reader Girl and her bookish friends!
I love Ksenia so much! She was the very first publicist who took a chance on little old me and sent me my very first ARC (Of Poseidon by Anna Banks) and put me on my very first official blog tour (again, for Of Poseidon). After she left Macmillan I continued to work with her while she was at ABRAMS, Tor, and Simon & Schuster. Now she’s living her dream and writing, and I can’t wait to see where life takes her next! I love hearing about her Polish heritage, so we’re all in for a huge treat today to read about how she celebrates Christmas.
A Polish Christmas
by Ksenia Winnicki
I love Christmas! Let’s just get that out of the way. I love the decorations, I love the music, and I love decorating a Christmas Tree. But one of the main things I get really excited for is the FOOD! Growing up Polish, I was always surrounded by Polish food anyway, but for some reason, the Polish food at Christmas was just extra special.
But before I start rambling on about the delicious food, let me take a step back and tell you a bit more about a few Polish Christmas traditions. Poland is a Catholic country, and so Christmas is a very big deal. In our Polish household, the main festivities happen on December 24, Christmas Eve, aka Wigilia.
Below, is a list of some of the Polish Christmas traditions and superstitions (including some that my family and I keep):
The first person to enter the household on Christmas Eve has to be a man, otherwise it will bring bad luck. Because my husband and I rent an apartment from my parents in the same building here in Queens, when my mom wants us to pick something up from downstairs that day, she will insist that it be Josh, not me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
During the day, you’re supposed to be fasting, in preparation for the Christmas supper. With all the other preparations going on during the day, I do in fact forget to eat anyway.
When setting the table, you are to leave one place setting for an extra guest, whether that guest be someone unexpected who is in search of a place to stay that night, or for someone that has departed. The table also has some hay hidden underneath the tablecloth. My mom brought some with her from Bethlehem when my parents visited one year, so we’ve been using that batch of hay for a few years now.
Christmas supper is supposed to begin when you see the first star light up in the sky. My parents and I do not hold to this tradition, but I know a close friend of mine did when she was growing up.
Right before sitting down to eat, there are two very important things that must happen.
The first one, is that we all take an opłatek (a thin wafer with a religious Christmas image), and go around the room to each person, breaking off a piece of that opłatek from one another, and exchanging good wishes for the upcoming year. There are some dipped in honey, but that is saved for after the meal, so that you may also have a sweet year, too. In addition to the wafer, we all take a bunch of change, and exchange the coins with one another. That way, at the end, you have coins from everyone else. And you are to tuck those coins away and not spend it, in order to ensure prosperity for the coming year.
Midnight Mass is especially a big occasion. For YEARS growing up, my parents and the family friends we spent Christmas with together talked about going to Midnight Mass. My friend and I always took bets on how many bottles of wine our parents would drink instead. One year, finally, one year when I was in college, we all went to Midnight Mass. It was loud! It was boisterous! It’s a whole church filled with Polish people who have been drinking and have been merry all day and night. It’s quite a sight (and sound)!
At midnight, the superstition is that animals begin talking. We sadly, never got to hear any of our cats and dogs speak, because we were either in bed by then or completely did not notice the time go by, and so we had no idea what wisdom our cats and dogs might have given out! Along that same line, my mom’s father (back in Poland) would go out to the barn to share an opłatek with the horses and cows and other farm animals.
All about the food: In addition to fasting during the day, there is to be no meat. So all the dishes for Wigilia are vegetarian and of the fish-based variety. Any food that has meat can be eaten on Christmas Day. Supposedly, there are to be twelve dishes, because of the twelve apostles. We do not hold to that tradition. For food we traditionally have red borscht with mushroom dumplings, pierogi (with cheese and potato), stuffed cabbage (with rice and mushroom), and carp. My mom likes to make kompot, a sweet and juicy beverage from pears and other dried fruit; for the longest time she would make kutia, this Polish-style pudding with poppy seed and other grains, but then she gave up when she noticed none of us ate it! Over the last several years, I’ve taken up the mantle of hosting Christmas Eve, as well as cooking the majority of the dishes. If you know me, I don’t cook. So instead, I spend the two days prior to Christmas Eve making and cooking stuffed cabbage, pierogi, uszka (the dumplings for the borscht), and some cookies and pies.
I’ve accumulated some Polish cookbooks in the last few years, but when it comes to the pierogi, I make sure to follow my grandmother’s recipe!
After the meal, we will sit down for some light desserts, some Polish Christmas carol singing, and then we open our gifts. Depending on how long everyone stays, our Christmas Eve can last long past midnight.
So those are some of the Polish Christmas traditions from my Polish household. Josh is a real trooper and has adapted quite well. ;) I do insist that he works from home on those days I’m cooking for fear of burning down the house.
The one thing I hate is how quickly it all goes by; I wish I could make Christmas Eve last longer!
So to celebrate in the spirit of the season and this post, I have three Polish-themed books to give away! They are:
The Dragon of Krakow and other Polish Stories by Richard Monte: A short but great collection of Polish legends featuring a dragon, a mermaid, and more!
Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak: One of my favorite real Polish heroes is a bear (yes, a bear), a soldier of the Polish II Corps who fought in WWII. His name is Corporal Wojtek, and his story is pretty much amazing and unbelievable.
Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin: Polish Historical Fiction! This is an epic saga that takes place during the late 1700s, when Poland is being partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The story is based off the diaries of a real noblewoman. There’s romance, scheming, politics and more! I read this like ten years ago and have been meaning to revisit. It’s the first in a trilogy!