The Chrismas Archives

CHRISTMAS IN POLAND

Despite being for so long under communist law, Poland has always maintained its Christmas intact. Traditional Christmas Eve Suppers, The uniquely Polish Krakow Crib competition, and a host of wonderful Christmas songs and carols have stayed alive in the tormented country with so many pressures on its borders. The following accounts cover the chief elements of the Polish Christmas which have changed little over the ensuing decades. And the Legend of the Krakow Crib.

WIGILIA
by Monica Gardner 1917

There are few countries so rich in National customs as Poland. They are clung to in the peasants cottages, carried out in the homes of the rich, kept up fondly by the exiles far away from home. Most beautiful among them is the festival of Christmas Eve. On that night a feast is held which is not only a sacred family gathering, but has its own sweet and solemn religious meaning.

Deep snow lies on the ground. The cold is intense, dry and frosty. There is the gay sound of tinkling bells as the guests, muffled in furs, drive up in sledges, little bells ringing on the horses heads. All is ready for the supper; but it must not begin till the first star appears in the sky, which in Poland would be about 6 o'clock. Therefore this Christmas supper, besides the name by which it is generally known, 'Wiligia', the Vigil - is known also as the Star supper. The children are watching eagerly for the star to rise. When at last it twinkles in the sky, the signal is given, and all go in to supper.

The dining room is lit with unusual brilliance. In memory of our Saviour's birth in a manger, straw or hay is laid upon the table under a white cloth. Before the company seat themselves, the father, or head of the family, takes a plate containing a wafer. It has been specially prepared and blessed by the parish priest and has some sacred sign stamped upon it - IHS or a picture of the Nativity, with perhaps a border of flowers. The father makes a little speech bidding those present to be at peace with God. He then breaks the wafer with the mother, and then with everyone present. The absent ones are not forgotten. Where we send Christmas cards, Poles send these blessed wafers first tearing off a small corner to show those who are to receive them, that the donor has broken it with them as a token of affection. How many Polish families have been parted from each other by exile! We can guess at the tender pleasure they feel when across the sea comes these little white wafers to remind them of the old times when they too sat round the straw covered table; to prove to them that though their place is now empty, they are there in the spirit and remembered with love.

After the wafer is broken, during which ceremony everyone wishes each other a happy Christmas and the beautiful polish carols are sung, the supper is eaten. It is the first meal of the day, as Christmas Eve is a strict fast in Poland. There are generally about eleven courses, but they may not include any meat. Almond soup, consisting of almonds, raisins, rice and milk, must always be served; and beetroot soup is also often on the table. Then come different kinds of fish - baked pike, for instance, or carp; vegetable dishes, very curious to our notions, such as small bags of pastry, filled with sauerkraut and swimming in butter, and cabbage leaves wrapped around fried or boiled millet.

The sweets include Polish poppyseed cakes, greatly beloved by the Polish children. They are a compound of white poppyseeds and jam in alternate layers. These are followed by elaborate ginger cakes and all kinds of pastry. The dessert is such as we have in England in midwinter - apples, oranges, nuts and dried fruits. Hungarian wine and the famous old Polish national drink of Mead are served with the solid foods.

Towards the end of the supper, it is obvious that something special is going to happen. The children are all led away from the dining room into another apartment. In comes a personage dressed as Father Christmas, but who in Poland is called the 'Starman'. (He is traditionally accompanied by the Starboys, who carry a lighted star lantern and sing carols.) Very often he is the parish priest in disguise. He examines the children in their catechism, and reproves those who answer wrong, and sometimes, in extreme cases, arranged beforehand with the parents, has recourse to a little birch!

Presently at the sign from the mother, the Starman tells the children that he has brought them rewards for their good conduct, from his own country, Starland, and his helpers have been arranging them in the dining room. He leads the eager children back to the dining room, where a transformation scene has taken place. Fancy lanterns and lights of all descriptions illuminate the room. Beautifully decked Christmas trees adorn the corners; and we can guess the rest of the scene, because children are the same all over the world.

After supper all the family, with the servants, gather around the fireplace. They sing the Christmas hymns. Then up come young boys from the village, carrying a great paper star lantern, singing carols. They are given presents, and the children safely packed off to bed, the elders spend the evening chatting till midnight. Then they drive in sledges through the deep snow to the midnight mass.

The village church, lights streaming from its windows onto the frozen white ground outside, is crowded with the peasants in their heavy sheepskins, and topboots; with their sonorous voices chanting the Christmas hymns. They too have broken the Christmas wafer. What Pole has not? Even the cattle are not left out. The wafer is crumbled into their food in memory of Christ being laid in a manger.

Christmas Day itself is kept like an ordinary Sunday. But there are several more little traditions connected with Christmastide. During the days around Christmas, beginning with Christmas Eve, Starboys carolling the Christmas songs go from house to house carrying the Szopka a miniature shed with puppets that act wonderfully well the sacred story of Christmas. Two days after Christmas, on St. John the Evangelists Day, the congregation goes up to the altar rails. The priest comes to each one and gives them the sacred chalice to drink from. This is in memory of St. John's martyrdom in boiling oil.

Then come Twelfth Night, the Epiphany. The people take with them to church small jewellery boxes, containing a gold ring, some incense, and amber in memory of the gifts of the Magi, and chalk. These objects are blessed; and when the owners return home, they draw with the chalk on every door in the house the initials K.M.B. with a cross after each. These letters stand for the names of the Three Kings, which according to tradition were Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar; and they remain on the doors all year.

As we have seen, Christmas Carols are a great feature of a Polish Christmas. They have been handed down for centuries, and are extremely beautiful. (The Polish National Hymn is a Carol entitled 'God is Born'.) A Pole who escaped from Siberia has told a touching story about these Christmas Carols. He languishing in his dungeon. All alone as he was he had lost count of time. Suddenly one night he heard among the clanking fetters a burst of the well known Polish Carol rising from the cell next to his. Then for the first time he knew that Poles were near him and it was Christmas Eve.

THE POLISH SZOPKA

The Polish Crib is varied, in the mountains they carved relief pictures, with the shepherds dressed in traditional garb for example. But in Krakow, they have a special tradition. It is a Nativity scene set inside the doors of a model of the Wawel Cathedral. Every year there is a competition to find the best model. People come from all over Poland, not just Krakow. The cribs can be six inches high, or six feet. Some have mechanisms, or lights. There are two elements which are the same they all are covered in coloured foils, and they all have the same architectural structure of the Cathedral.

This competition began in 1937. It was intended to bring back to life a tradition which had died shortly after the first world war, that of the Crib Theatre. To the Square in Krakow's centre come the artists carrying their Szopka. It is a magnificent sight. The winners are kept in the Museum of Ethnography, the rest are sold in a gloriously colourful marketplace, overlooked by the statue of Poland's famous author, Adam Mickiewicz. The best ones snapped up as quickly as they are put down. The event is covered by world reporters and has become probably the most famous Christmas tradition of modern Poland.

Abrozy Grabowski, eminent Polish historian, recorded in 1831 one of the most complete descriptions of the origin of the Szopka. From him we learn just what it was that the Poles of Krakow wished to preserve with the start of the competition in 1937. he wrote:

"A Szopka is a small itinerant theatre, made up of coloured paper, which boys are taking round households to the amusement of children each evening, starting with Christmas Eve and till Candlemas Day, that is to say, throughout January. The actors in the crib are dolls (puppets), which one of the boys, kneeling behind the crib, sets in motion, carrying on the suitable dialogue and singing various concepts. The main parts are: King Herod with the Jew beside him, a Cracovian and his bride, a mountaineer and his woman, a Cossack, peasants and their steward, a Jew and Jewish woman who, all in pairs, leave the crib and dance and sing in front of it. A soldier also comes out and disperses the dancing dolls.

This portable puppet theatre, was common throughout Poland in earlier times, and in common with similar practice in Hungary, was accompanied by Starboys who sang carols. It was in 1808 that the Krakow Szopka in the style of a Church rather than a Theatre, which may have been an earlier style or even a different style which was around at the same time, was eloquently recorded. In the diary of Kazimierz Girtler is written:

"It was for the first time too that I could see a crib, only it was not the kind of civilised crib which imitates the theatre but an old time dressed up stable, with the Holy Child, Holy Virgin, St Joseph, kings and shepherds as well as an Ox and a Donkey. On either side of the stable there are two towers as if the said stable was put up in a chapel. Candlelit windows of the towers cast a glamour around. The drama consisted in the arrival of the three kings, followed by the shepherds and then the action developed helped along by the dextrous hands of a boy, who sitting behind the crib, directed the movements of these puppets on sticks. Whereas a chorus sang carol songs from canticles instead of speeches and conversation from the figures on the stage."