POLISH CHRISTMAS

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.

 

How did Immigrants Pack to Leave Home Forever?

What would you pack if leaving your home forever? How would you feel if you did not have room for a favorite item?

Emigrants had to decide carefully what personal belongings to bring with them. Letters from their immigrant friends and relatives warned them that there was limited space available on their voyage, they only had room for the bare necessities. Items that families were able to pack often consisted of clothes, tools needed for a skilled trade, possibly a family Bible and a picture of their parents, family heirlooms, and necessary provisions for the trip. These items were typically packed in one trunk or perhaps a few suitcases to fit in the limited space that they were allowed. They stored their trunk in the ship’s cargo area. The early steerage passengers were given very little storage space near their sleeping area. They were allowed to carry only a few items that they could store on the beds. As the size of ships increased and sanitary conditions improved, shipping lines allocated more storage space in the steerage sleeping areas. Suitcases or carry-on items were stored in the sleeping area for the family to access during the trip.

Single males and females had accumulated less clothing and personal items to pack, but the selection process may have been difficult because they had to give away a favorite item.

How would you say goodbye forever?

The emigrant was leaving home, possibly forever.  Many had been traveling outside of their parish and their comfort zone for the first time. They were leaving their friends,  siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They had to say goodbye as if they would never see them again. Some of the emigrants had thoughts of returning; an estimated twenty percent did return. However, most emigrants would never see their loved ones or homes again.

My grandmother, Anna Chmielewska, told my mother “that after I had received Hipolit’s letter telling me to come to Camden New Jersey,  I cleaned and repaired the clothing that I was going to take with me, and I looked through my other things such as hair brushes, pictures and jewelry to decide what I wanted to take with me to New Jersey. The letters from Hipolit also included money that was used for the tickets and I also purchased a used suitcase for my things. When the day to leave came, Boleslaw put my bags on his cart and drove me the seven miles to the train station at Czyzew. We had waited about an hour before the train came for me to leave Boleslaw, my family, and Poland forever. I was crying, and he gave me his last hug and helped me onto the train.

As you write your family history, try to find the words that let your family feel some of the joys and sorrows that your ancestors felt. Exploring answers to some of the above questions will probably bring your ancestors alive.

1851 Polish-English Dictionary on Google Books

When trying to interpret the older Polish documents, an older Polish-English dictionary should be used. A modern dictionary will not be useful because word usage has changed over time.  I have found an 1851 dictionary on Google Books that can be very useful. Below is the web address where you can view and download a copy. I recommend downloading the dictionary in the PDF format.

Dokladny Slownik Polsko-Angielski 1851

https://archive.org/details/dokladnyslownik00chodgoog

polish-engish-dictionary

New Book Published

My new book on Polish Immigration to America is now available on Amazon.com.  This is more of a history book than a genealogy research book but it will give you insights about your immigrant ancestors for your family history stories.

Title: Polish Immigration to America: When, Where, Why and How

Description: When did your Polish ancestors immigrate, where did they leave, why did they leave, how did they get here? These are questions we all hope to find the answers. This book discusses the history of Poland and gives some insights to possible answers to the questions about your ancestors’ immigration. All three Polish partitions are covered, and the material will hopefully clear up your confusion why your Polish ancestors listed that they were born in other countries on early U.S. documents.

The book also presents brief histories of most of the ports that were used by Polish immigrants for departure from Europe and the ports where they arrived. Also covered are details of life in steerage during the voyage and the process of examination of the immigrants to gain admittance to the United States.

 

PUSH/PULL factors in Immigration

In the last half of the 1800s and the early years of the 1900s, the forces motivating immigrants to leave their homeland can be divided into “Push” factors and “Pull” factors.

Push factors were forces that drove them out of their home countries such as:

  • poverty
  • a shortage of land
  • the military draft
  • political or cultural repression
  • religious discrimination

Pull factors were:

  • the promise of jobs in the new lands
  • cheap farmland in America and Canada
  • the magnetic pull of “chain “

Understand our ancestors; Possibly understand ourselves

Understanding our ancestors may help us understand who we are.  To gain this understanding, our genealogy research should go beyond the names, dates, family trees, and documents that are standard talking points in genealogy discussions. Review the facts and events that you find about your ancestors and ask Why? How? Where? When? You may not find the answers, but exploring their options may give you a better insight into the character of your ancestors. Review carefully the challenges that your ancestors faced and how it may have affected them.  Remember that some points of their character may have filtered down to you through the generations.

For my grandmother, I tried to envision her early days in Poland. I sought accounts of what happened around her village during World War I. What fears and challenges did she face during her immigration to America. What did she find after she arrived to live with her brother? How did she react and overcome the challenge of an arranged marriage and making a new life in America in a town where she knew no one.

My grandmother had a significant influence on me. When I was able to relate the challenges in her life to the points of character that I saw in her, I was able to understand how her accomplishments had silently influenced my character.

Try this process for one of your ancestors and you may be amazed by what happens.

Book Launch

I revised my book “Finding Grandma’s European Ancestors”. The revised edition includes more countries and more details.

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