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.

 

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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.

New Genealogy Series – Follow Your Past

I have just started watching a new TV series on the Travel Channel called ” Follow Your Past”. It is a great example of “putting meat onto the bones” of your ancestors.

In each episode, the host meets the guests and then identifies at least two ancestors from their family history.  The next step goes beyond telling the story, but they have to live it. Guests have been asked to sleep overnight in a cave to experience where their ancestor lived after they first arrived. Another quest had to skydive to experience some of the fears their grandfather had when he was a paratrooper during the D-Day invasion. What better way to know your ancestor then to try to experience what they did.

It may be hard for some of us to physically actually have the same experiences. Try to read detailed accounts that cover critical events similar experiences and then ask yourself questions that they may have had and describe what they may have seen. This will help make their lives come alive.

Watch a few episodes and then try to envision what your ancestors felt at critical events in their history.

Christmas Memories – Be sure to include in your family history

How did your Grandparents celebrate Christmas? Here in America and in the old country?

This could be an important part of your family history. Celebrating holidays and special events gave the  people an overall rhythm to their lives during the year and most immigrants tried to continue this in their new homes.

 We all love Christmas because of its magical atmosphere. It is a special time when people forget all their problems and try to be together. Christmas helps 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 become kind, friendly and generous.

What are your memories?

Do you remember the Christmas tree at your grandparent’s house? What were the decorations like? Were they homemade of paper and foil or did they splurge and buy the colorful glass ornaments?

My early memories are of a fir tree in a corner of the living room filled with an array of wooden and paper figures that were mixed in with glistening glass globes. Shiny foil garlands were wrapped around the tree and silver tinsel hung on the tree and this gave it a festive look. I believe that this was the Americanized version of the Christmas tree that my mother who was born here had developed. My grandmother told me that in her village in Poland her father had hung the tree from the ceiling and the family decorated it 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 near the tree. She and her brothers and sisters had made many of the decorations, but the manger and some of the foil decorations had been made by other generations and saved over the years.

 

My memories of Christmas eve and Christmas day start with Midnight mass and afterward being shuttled off to bed with a promise that Santa would come only after I was asleep. Morning brought cheer with the opening of presents with my parents and grandparents and then a large breakfast.

Are your memories? Did your family gather on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? What were the dishes that were served? My family had a ham as the main dish. Was ham on your grandmother’s table or did she serve turkey?  What were the desserts?

These are the memories that will make your family history come alive. Capture them now while your memories are still sharp. Add the memories of your brothers, sisters and cousins to capture as many details as possible. Also, remember to enjoy the spirit of Christmas today.

Merry Christmas