POLAND

In the largely Roman Catholic Poland, Christmas Eve begins with a day of fasting and then a night of feasting. The traditional Christmas meal is known as Wigilia (“The Vigil”), and being invited to attend a Wigilia dinner with a family is considered a high honor. On the night of Christmas Eve, the appearance of the first star in the sky is watched for, in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem, that it has been given an affectionate name of “the little star” or Gwiazdka (the female counterpart of St. Nicholas). On that evening, children watch the sky anxiously hoping to be the first to cry out, “The star has come!” After the first star appearance is declared, the family members sit down to a dinner table.
According to tradition, bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. Others partake in the practice of placing money under the table cloth for each guest, in order to wish for prosperity in the coming year. The dinner contains twelve dishes, one for each Apostle. In many homes, an extra place setting is set. The empty setting is symbolically left at the table for a lonely wanderer who may be in need of food, an angel, the Baby Jesus or the Holy Spirit should appear to share the feast.

Before eating, everyone exchanges Christmas greetings with each other. The supper begins with the breaking of the opłatek. By sharing a piece of Christmas wafer (Opłatki), when everyone at the table breaks off a piece and eats it as a symbol of their unity with Christ. The opłatek is usually blessed by the presiding Bishop, and stamped with a religious image, such as the nativity scene, they then share a piece with each family member. A tradition exists among some families to serve twelve different dishes at Wigilia symbolizing the Twelve Apostles, or perhaps, an odd number of dishes for good luck (usually five, seven, or nine). Some practice the superstition that an even number of people must be seated around the table.

A traditional Wigilia supper in Poland includes fried carp and barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (translated as “little ears”, also known as meatless ravioli). The most common dishes are fish soup, with potato salad, pierogi, gołąbki filled with kasza, pickled herring and fruit kompot. Carp provides a main component of the Christmas Eve meal across Poland; carp fillet, carp in aspic etc. Universal Polish Christmas foods are pierogi as well as some herring dishes, herring fillets, herring in aspic and for dessert, makowiec or noodles with poppy seed. Often, there is a compote of dry fruits for a drink. etc. Dishes beside fish are usually cabbage-, forest mushroom- (like boletus) and poppy seed-based, with herring being very important. After supper the Star Man arrives attended by the Star Boys. They are dressed as Wise Men or animals or other figures. The Star Man examines the children in their catechism and rewards them with small presents if they do well, even if they need a bit of coaching. The Star Boys sing carols and are given a treat for their help. The feast begins with the appearance of the first star. The meal is followed by the exchange of gifts. The remainder of the evening is given to stories and songs around the Christmas tree. In some areas of the country, children are taught that “The Little Star” brings the gifts. As presents are unwrapped, carolers may walk from house to house receiving treats along the way.

Christmas Eve ends with Pasterka, the Midnight Mass at the local church. The tradition commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem and their paying of respect and bearing witness to the new born Messiah. The custom of Christmas night liturgy was introduced in the Christian churches after the second half of the 5th century. In Poland that custom arrived together with the coming of Christianity. The next day (December 25) begins with the early morning mass followed by daytime masses. According to scripture, the Christmas Day masses are interchangeable allowing for greater flexibility in choosing the religious services by individual parishioners.

The gift bearer varies. In some regions it is Święty Mikołaj (Saint Nicholas), in others Święty Mikołaj gives his gifts on December 6 and the gift bringer of the Christmas Eve is Gwiazdor (“star man”), Aniołek (“little angel”) or Dzieciątko (“baby Jesus”).

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