As you all know, Christmas is quickly approaching and instead of continuing to procrastinate, I finally went shopping with my mom. In the past, I have always tried to do all the purchasing ahead of time to avoid last minute shoppers. However, this year, I just haven’t gotten into the Christmas spirit (or known as “madness”). So, as I was following my mom, I started remembering my first Polish Christmas.
In the four years that I lived in Poland, I only celebrated Christmas there once, with good reason! My first Christmas in Poland was immediately after I arrived there in December 2013. At that time, I had only been in Poland for around 5 months, perhaps a little less. So I still didn’t have many friends to speak of. As Christmas was approaching then, I was getting more and more nervous about spending this time of the year alone in an unknown country. And I was secretly wishing one of my new friend’s would pity me and (hopefully) invite me for Christmas. I remember it was 3 weeks before Christmas and finally a guy I knew through another friend asked me if I wanted to travel to a city named Opole to spend Christmas with him and his family. Since I didn’t have any options, and beggars can’t be choosers, I obviously thanked him and accepted his proposal. I was trying to hype up the trip by selling it as “a new city to visit in Poland!” And so, I purchased my ticket and waited patiently for the journey ahead of me. Finally, the day arrived and I made my way to the Sopot train station sometime before or maybe a little after midnight. The journey took a grueling 10 hours. The guy, who I will name as Przemek, waited for me at the train station and we finally met. *
So we made our way (walking) to his dorm-room, since he was still attending the university. The whole time, I thought we were going to spend the night at his family’s home, boy was I wrong! Przemek, proceeded by showing me his room and telling me that his two other roommates had left Opole because they had family elsewhere. He also showed me the bathroom, which I was thunderstruck - the bathrooms were shared by both men and women. In the US, when it comes to bathrooms, it is almost always segregated based on gender, so I found it unusual. Once he showed me the rest of the dorm, we went back to his room and I finally asked him where I was sleeping. His response shocked me to my bones - “You’ll be sleeping in my bed with me.” I must’ve given him a look, since he immediately followed by “or you can sleep in one of my roommate’s bed.” And so, we agreed that I would sleep in one of his roommate’s bed, but I felt incredibly uneasy after that conversation.
As hours went by, dinner time was closing in, we started making our way to his family’s home, to be more precise, to his grandparent’s flat. We finally arrived, knocked, and his grandmother opened the door. I was expecting a welcoming hug and instead I was greeted with a cold look. I was so confused and, again, justified this strange behavior by blaming myself. Perhaps I was dressed incorrectly, or maybe I gave her an add look. But as I walked inside the flat, it was obvious that it was not me, it was the family. They all acted strangely cold towards me. As I sat by their dinner table, I inconspicuously asked Przemek what was going on. He then told me that he hadn’t told his family that I was coming and that his grandparents actually hated Americans.** Can you imagine how I felt after learning this? The whole situation was absolutely dreadful!
As I sat there, trying to be polite, smile, and try to make some kind of conversation, I knew that everything I did or tried to do was hopeless. I was an uninvited stranger invading their home. Thankfully, I was able to get a glimpse of what a Polish Christmas looked like.
Today, I am thankful that I went, even though it was such a grim dinner. I got to see the Polish Christmas traditions. The ones that stick in my mind the most are the following:
- Washing/cleaning windows - something that is EXTREMELY Polish is the fact that Polish women always wash or clean their windows before a big celebration - such as Easter or Christmas. I remember going for a run and would politely smile at the women who were climbing their homes so that they would be able to wash/clean their windows.
- Tangerines and Oranges - I guess during the Communistic period exotic fruits such as tangerines, oranges and even bananas were a rare commodity. So many would get them during Christmas since it was considered a treat. However, many Poles still purchase these “exotic” fruits during this time of year.
- Wafer or “Oplatek” - Something that I remember vividly is the tradition of sharing the “oplatek” which is a wafer that is usually taken during your First Communion. This I remember incredibly well because of the awkwardness of my adventure. You are supposed to cut out a small piece and share it with each member while also wishing them well. Unfortunately, Przemek’s grandmother, didn’t share any of her wafer with me. Later I realized what that signified….lol!
- 12 Dishes on Christmas Eve - At Przemek’s grandparents’ home, they had 12 different dishes. This is a common tradition in Poland. I need to add, that these 12 dishes do not contain any meat, everyone needs to eat them, and the main dish represents Jesus. The dishes represent Jesus’ 12 disciples. From all these dishes, my favorite one is called “barszcz.” I had to google it because I can never remember the name, but it is beetroot soup which contains little ears or “uszka” in Polish. They’re like baby pierogi, filled with mushrooms…yum!
- An extra dish - According to the Polish tradition, a place is always left empty at the table for an: 1) unexpected guest, 2) to commemorate a dead relative, or 3) for a family member that was unable to attend. For me, this was the best tradition I learned. Leaving an extra plate for a person that may not have a family or someone who is hungry and can’t afford a meal is something incredibly honorable. I am not sure whether Poles ever encounter this, but nonetheless, it’s the thought that counts, right? :)
- Midnight Mass - So Poles only open presents after eating their full course of meals and once that’s done they like to finish off Christmas Eve by attending Midnight Mass.
That’s basically all that I have been able to take away from my first Polish Christmas. I finished off by going back to the train station instead of going to Midnight Mass. I felt utterly out of place and made the rushed decision to go back to Sopot and spend Christmas on my own. From that time on, I made the decision that no matter where I’ll be, I will always go back home for Christmas. Many times we get annoyed with our parents or siblings, but at the end of the day, they are the ones that count the most.
* I want to add that I hadn’t met this guy in the past, I had only spoken to him. He was the one that helped me at the very beginning with my legal paperwork since he had experience helping someone else in the past
** He had dated an American young woman in the past who broke his heart.