Celebrating holidays and special events gave the Polish people an overall rhythm to their lives during the year. My Polish ancestors enjoyed this rhythm as the seasons and weather changed. One of my Polish cousins told me his extended family and neighboring villagers would come together for the celebration of the customs for the different holidays occurring during each season. The celebrations gave them relief from their daily work, and they would look forward to the next festive time.
Thoughts of the Christmas festivities began with the four weeks of Advent which begins the preparation for Christmas with fasting and prayer. At the start of the holiday season, mothers and grandmothers in the Dmochy and Przezdziecko areas began cleaning their homes, and they began preparing those special dishes and treats such as Christmas cakes.
My grandparents told me Christmas seemed to create a magical atmosphere. It was a special time when people forgot all their problems and tried to be together. Christmas helped people transform themselves from the cold dark realities of winter into a better mind by enjoying the festive celebrations surrounding Christmas. Family, relatives, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers became kind, friendly and generous.
On Christmas Eve, the Christmas trees were set up in most homes. My grandmother and grandfather both told me they always had a Christmas tree in their home because it was always special to the children. However, their trees were set up differently. The trees were hung from the ceiling in Poland. Their families decorated the trees with walnuts wrapped in silver and gold foil, bright red apples, gingerbread in fancy shapes, and chains made of glossy colored paper. A manger was set up in the church in Czyzew and also in my grandfather’s home. My grandmother said they did not have a manger to set up. My grandparents said that they and their brothers and sisters made many of the decorations, but the manger and some of the foil decorations were ones used by my great-grandmother’s family.
The children watched for the first star to appear in the night sky because this was the signal for beginning the supper. After sighting the star, those attending the celebration knelt in prayer. Next, father broke the Christmas wafer (opłatek), took a piece, and passed it around the table for each person to do the same. Then, the family exchanged holiday wishes in the form of prayers such as God bless you (Niech cię Bóg błogosławi); God give you happiness (Daj Ci Boze szczescie).
The opłatek were unleavened wafers that were baked from pure wheat flour and water and were usually rectangular in shape and very thin. They were identical in composition to the communion wafers used in the Catholic mass. The Opłatki wafers were embossed with Christmas related religious images, varying from the nativity scene, especially Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, to the Star of Bethlehem.
After the wafer had been passed around the table, everyone then got to taste the traditional dishes that were prepared by mother and her kitchen helpers. The meal included cheese, sauerkraut pierogi, fish in various forms, fish or mushroom soup with noodles, herring, boiled potatoes, dumplings with plums and poppy seeds, stewed prunes with lemon peel, a compote of dried fruit and poppy seed cake. The traditional Christmas dishes followed the rule to use food from each of the family’s food sources: grains from the field, vegetables from the garden, fruit from the orchard, mushrooms and herbs from the woods, and fish from the sea, rivers, or ponds.
After supper, the candles on the tree were lit by the entire family or sometimes by only the children. Then the entire family joined in singing Christmas carols. After the singing, father, mother, or a grandparent would tell old Polish Christmas legends and different stories of how Christmas was celebrated in ancient times. One favorite story was about the belief that the farm animals spoke in human voices at midnight.
Beginning on Christmas Eve and continuing through the holidays, groups of boys from the village and the two nearby villages went around singing Christmas carols for their neighbors. They usually carried a szopka which was a miniature stable, with figures of the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the animals mounted on a pole or a platform and carried shoulder-high. One person in the group carried the star and was the gwiazdor or the star boy. My grandfather told me he was the star boy for the Christmas before he left for America. Over time, the person who carried the star became known as jolly St. Nick.
The festivities ended with the family blowing out the candles and then traveling to church to attend midnight mass.
On Christmas Day, the Zuchowski and Chmielewski families spent the day at home eating, singing and enjoying the family. On the second day of Christmas, they ventured out to visit friends and family in the neighboring villages.