A Polish Christmas in Merthyr
A Polish Christmas
Christmas is a special time of year for many. The time spent with family, the loving act of giving and sharing with one another, the traditions… We have our individual traditions and as communities, we have collective traditions, too.
I have learned about different nationalities and how they celebrate Christmas, but until recently I ashamedly didn’t know much about Polish people and how they do Christmas, so I caught up with a local family and asked them…
Elzbieta and Przemyslaw Luszcz have lived in Merthyr Tydfil for 13 years. They have two young sons, Jakub and Patryk. As with the vast majority of Polish people I know, they work hard and are highly family orientated.
Christmas is a much-celebrated time of year for them and they look forward to some well-deserved time off to celebrate and spend with family and friends – many of who will travel to spend Christmas with them.
The Luszcz family begin their celebrations on December 6th which is known in their culture as St. Nicholas Day/Santa Claus Day, or ‘Mikolaja’. This day was once upon a time the only day where Christmas gifts were given in Poland.
Tradition states that St. Nicholas comes in bright vestments carrying a crozier that resembles a shepherd’s crook as he descends from Heaven; he is accompanied by an angel and they travel on horseback or in a sleigh pulled by a white horse as they visit homes.
After having written their wish lists to St. Nicholas in advance, children receive small gifts and sweets placed under pillows, inside their boots, shoes or in stockings hung up in anticipation the night before with the bigger gifts being kept for Christmas Day).
Poland also has an alternative to Krampus (who is better known to Welsh folk), known as the ‘Starman’ (Gwiazdor); an equally cranky character who can threaten children with a birch stick before opening their presents if they misbehave…
The family also take their annual Christmas photo around this time of year, if they can. And the children begin decorating various Christmas themed biscuits their mothers have baked ready for the occasion.
A spare place at the table
Christmas Eve is significant for the family, more so than Christmas Day. The Christmas Eve Supper (Wigilia) is important to them as it is the time that they celebrate the real meaning of Christmas.
It sees them follow the tradition of laying hay beneath a colourful table cloth as a means of symbolizing the newborn Jesus being laid in a manger.
They await the sight of the first star in the sky (the sighting of the first star symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem) before they sit down to begin tucking in to 12 scrumptious dishes (none of which contain meat) such as fish, pasta, red beetroot, nuts and honey. They do this to commemorate the 12 Apostles.
During this feast, the family also share what is known as ‘oplatek’ – an unleavened wafer embossed with a religious image (much like they do at communion). Everyone at the celebration receives one, thereafter sharing it with everyone in attendance.
During this time, they exchange good wishes before sitting down to eat – this act symbolizes the breaking of bread at the Last Supper. The family always lovingly leave a spare place at the table, too, for anyone who is in need of food and shelter in line with the old Polish tradition.
After the family has finished eating, they will then sing carols together as is also customary. Soon after, they will either place gifts beneath the tree or open some together. This signals the coming end of their cherished Christmas Eve traditions.
Elzbieta and Przemyslaw try their hardest to attend midnight mass every year, but they don’t always make it as they work long hours right up to the day.
They tell me their children’s excitement is contagious as soon as December 6th arrives and lasts way past Christmas Day (Christmas Day and Boxing Day are known in Polish culture as Day 1 and Day 2 of Christmas) and so the occasion lasts a long time at their house.
Christmas Day is party time! They open their gifts once they are all up together, make a start on dinner (a dinner very much like ours in Wales with chicken or Turkey and all the trimmings – though some do have fish for their dinner), crank up some Christmas music and enjoy seeing their visiting friends and family.
I asked if they thought a Welsh Christmas was very different, but they don’t see any huge differences. As Elzbieta said, ‘We are also individuals and will do things our own way, even when still following traditions. Christmas in Wales is just as giving, enjoyable and warmhearted’.
Wesołych Świąt/Nadolig Llawen to the Luszcz family, and to all of our Polish families and friends across Wales.
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