I’ve said before that to really experience a culture,
the best time is during the holidays. This idea proved to be true during
Christmas this past year. Marcin’s family was kind enough to open their home
and show me a truly Polish Christmas.
The festivities began on the 6th of December, Swi?ty
Miko?aj (St. Nicholas’ Day). On the morning of St. Nicholas’ Day, small
presents are typically found under pillows when you wake up. This is when you
discover if you were good or bad during the year – and what to expect on
Christmas Eve. At work we had a fun surprise visit from Santa. 🙂
The main celebration for Poland is on Wigilia
(Christmas Eve). This is the time when families meet for the traditional 12
course dinner. Most traditional is the Karp. In the weeks leading up to
Christmas, I saw large fish markets appear in booths on the squares in Kraków
with big barrels of live fish. Also, in the bigger grocery stores, I saw
barrels of fish temporarily placed in the meat market. In the past, Poles would
purchase the fish live and keep it in their bathtub until Christmas Eve
morning. Since then, the fish are purchased closer to the 24th – living and
Before beginning the dinner, the Catholic
“bread” (like a communion wafer) is shared between each dinner guest.
Each person breaks a bread piece with another and wishes each other best wishes
for the year. This is repeated between each family member.
The first dish on Christmas Eve was Barszcz with
uszka. Barszcz is a very traditional red beet soup. The soup has a very
particular taste – sweet, yet slightly bitter. The actual beet taste is very
subtle. The soup is one of my favorite in Poland. Uszka is somewhat like
periogi – a dumpling filled with meat.
Dishes which followed the soup and uszka were the main
courses: karp and cooked cabbage – one with mushrooms and the other with beans.
My favorite was the cabbage with mushrooms. Alongside these dishes were bread
and salad (raw cabbage and other vegetables with a mayo based dressing).
Throughout dinner the Polish drink, Kompot, was
available. Kompot in general is fruit boiled in order to create a sweet drink.
The drink is available in many, many varieties and found most any eating place.
The Kompot serviced on Christmas Eve is a very precise mixture of fruit, mainly
dehydrated plums and apricots. I was advised that people either love or
hate the mixture. I tried it, excited for the new experience; but it wasn’t for
Following the main hot dishes, was poppy seed pudding
with tea. Marcin was especially excited for the dish, as it is his favorite
dessert. While we ate the pudding, presents were passed around by Marcin’s
nephew, Philip. Oscar (my cat) had been invited to the celebration and
spent most of the time watching Philip and finding stray pieces of wrapping
paper to play with. All of the presents were from Santa.
In the middle of present opening, more desserts were
placed on the table. A variety of cakes – my favorite being the cheesecake.
Yum! As a U.S. treat, I decided to make sugar cookies with frosting.
Though my attempt at making them was not so successful due to the ingredient
translation, they were able to get the idea. Also, with the happy surprise of
puppy chow (sent in the mail by my mom a few days before the holiday), I was
able to share a personal family tradition with the family. The treat went over
When we could eat no more, it was time to leave. We
were sent home with food to feed us for a week – leftovers along with a variety
of meats, cheeses and fruits. Also, cleaned fish scales from the Christmas karp
were given to each person to put in their wallet. This is for luck of a
financially prosperous year. My wallet smells like fish now, but that is
something I am willing to deal with in the big picture.
A common ending to Wigilia is the church service held
at midnight. Although we did not go, it is a very common tradition in
Christmas Day was spent resting at home until the 26th
when ?wi?tego Szczepana (the day of St. Stefan) was celebrated. This typically
involves meeting with the family again for a small meal. However, Marcin and I
spent the time traveling to the local mountain town, Zakopane, to begin New
Year’s Eve plans.
We celebrated the last day of Christmas traditions
with Trzech Króli – the day of the Wisemen. This was was on the 6th of January
which allowed us a day longer of Christmas break.
Holidays are typically when I feel the farthest from
home and family. Christmas Day was the toughest yet, but I enjoyed the new
experience very much.
I know it is late; however: Wszystkiego Najlepszego z
Okazji Bo?ego Narodzenia i Nowego Roku!!