Anna spoke very fondly and in great detail of her childhood memories growing up in the Polish countryside with her family’s Christmas traditions. Anna briefly mentioned that in spite of the religious oppression caused by Soviet occupation, families quietly maintained their strong religious traditions and passed them on from generation to generation. She mentioned that although she and Danuca were from the East and South of Belarus, the traditions were similar and there was overlap. Danuca was not able to attend.
Christmas is a solemn, religious time in Poland. Lent is observed and in her family, Anna and her family typically give up eating meat for 3 days before Christmas. Meals are based around fish. This is a special time as Anna’s father, a fisherman by trade, would fish and bring home fresh carp and herring which Anna’s mother would prepare into special traditional dishes.
On Christmas Eve, Anna’s family would go into the woods and they would select a pine tree which their father would fell then they would drag it home on a wooden sled to decorate and trim.
Christmas is not about presents in Poland but more about kinship and feeling grateful. Gifts in her family were oranges, nuts and fruit.
WIGILIA: On Christmas Eve, Wigilia or Christmas Eve Dinner is served. The Wigilia is a meatless meal. Items that would normally be included in a traditional Wigilia menu include mushroom soup, boiled potatoes (kartofle), pickled herring, meatless Borscht with apples. For days in advance, the family prepares the traditional foods. The dinner courses are fixed at seven, nine or eleven.
According to myth, in no case must there be an odd number of people at the table, otherwise it is said that some of the feasters would not live to see another Christmas. A lighted candle in the windows symbolizes the hope that the Godchild, in the form of a stranger, may come to share the Wigilia and an extra place is set at the table for the unexpected guest. This belief stems from the ancient Polish adage, “A guest in the home is God in the home.”.
At the dinner, there is always a thin layer of hay under the white tablecloth in memory of the God-child in the manger.
OPLATEK: Before dinner begins, everyone goes to Church to receive the blessed wafer from the priest. Then people exchange good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. This is such a deeply moving moment that often tears of love and joy are evoked from the family members who are breaking this symbolic bread.
In Anna’s small town there were only 500 people. Everyone knew everyone so the whole town would gather at the 500 old year church on December 25th. to meet and exchange good wishes.
Anna tries to carry on the tradition in the US by taking her son to Church every year to receive the blessed wafer, “OPLATEK”. Anna said that there are three authentic stores in Dorchester Avenue in Boston that she shops at for the traditional Polish dark bread and other Polish delicacies. Anna will share the store names and addresses with us.