It is always important to remember who you are and where you come from, a concept often forgotten in modern society. At Holy Trinity, we know who we are, where we came from, and are proud of our Polish heritage and of those who came before us. Our heritage has left us with a wealth of traditions and has created a culture like none other in the world. Many polish traditions are appropriately focused on certain times and aspects of the Liturgical Year and act as outward displays of our common faith in Jesus Christ.
Listed below are a few common traditions of the Polish Community from various times throughout the year.
In Poland, Christmas Day begins the twelve-day Gody (Days of harmony and good will.) The evenings of this twelve-day period are known as swiete wieczory, or holy evenings. The Twelfth Night was amongst the most important days of the Winter Solstice. The evening of the Feast of the Three Kings was called szczodry wieczor, which means a bountiful or plentiful evening. On the Feast, the family takes blessed chalk, foil, and incense, marking the home with the initials of the Three Wise Men along with the year. This is done to bless the home and provide protection for those within against illness and misfortune. Often the parish priest–or in rural villages, the parish organist–comes to bless the home at this special time. The Feast of the Three Kings ends the swiete wieczory — the twelve holy nights that began on Christmas Day–and signals the beginning of zapusty, or carnival time.
A long-time tradition in Poland during the Christmas season is th building of “Szopki” (pronounced shop-key), which are elaborate form of the Nativity scene. This tradition started back in the 13th century in Krakow, Poland, and remains an annual tradition whereas major prizes are awarded for the most elaborately decorated and designed Szopki.
This is a miniature version of a Christmas Szopka. The Krakowian creches sometimes reach six feet in height. Their construction is based on elements of Krakow’s historic architecture including Gothic spires, Renaissance facades and Baroquian-topped domes.
The most sacred time in the Catholic Church is Easter, aptly described by St. Gregory the Great as the “Celebration of Celebrations.” Holy Week and Easter Week are a time of special reverence, devotion and symbolism.
One of the customs during the Easter celebration among Americans of Polish decent is Easter breakfast known as “Swieconka” (pronounced Sh-fyen-sohn-kah). The foods for this meal are prepared early on Holy Saturday and traditionally include sausage, ham, colored hard cooked eggs, bread, butter or sugar formed in a shape of a lamb, horseradish, salt and pepper. Some families include the fruit, wine, cheeses and pastries.
In olden days, a priest would visit each home to bless the Easter morning foods. Today, the foods are placed in a basket and covered with a white cloth. Family members then take the basket to church for a special service, usually in the afternoon on Holy Saturday, at which the foods are blessed.
Symbolism of Swieconka foods are:
Colored Eggs (Kraszanki): Represent the “New Life” of the Resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday.
Sausage (Kielbasa) and Ham (Szynka): Symbolize the “New Law” in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Breads (Chleb, Babka): Symbolic of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.
Salt (Sol): The fundamental preservative and seasoning symbolic of justice and prosperity.
Horseradish (Chrzan): Symbolize the bitter herbs of Passover and reminds us of the bitter suffering of Christ.
Butter (Maslo): This is often shaped into a lamb (Baranek Wielkanocny). It reminds us of the good will of Christ that we should have towards all things.
One of the most cherished customs that has endured within Polish heritage in the United States is the Christmas Eve vigil celebration known as “Wigilia” (pronounced Vee-geel-ya). The name comes from the latin word vigilare, meaning “to watch.” It is the special night to wait for the coming of the Infant Jesus.
Although specific traditions vary from family to family Wigilia is considered a sacred night of unity among all family members and includes specific foods and unique customs steeped in rich symbol.
Preparations for Wigilia meal include setting the dinner table with white cloth under which is placed hay. These symbolize the manager and Mary’s veil used to swaddle the Baby Jesus. An extra is always set in memory of ancestors or to accommodate an “unexpected guest” – perhaps even the infant Jesus.
The first star in the sky commemorates the birth of Christ and represents the star of Bethlehem. After the first star is seen, the Christmas tree is lighted and the dinner customs commence.
Dinner is preceded by a prayer and the sharing of the Christmas wafer, the Oplatek (pronounced oh-pwah-tek). This is an unleavened wheat wafer much like the hosts used at mass. It is passed from the head of the household to each family member, with a kiss and a wish for health, wealth and happiness in the coming year. In many families, each person also in turn wishes the same to each other.
The evening meal is always meatless and consists of numerous courses. Many families serve twelve courses, symbolizing the Apostles and/or the months of the year, while others serve an odd number of courses. Foods represent four areas of the earth: mushrooms for the forest, fruits from the orchards, grains form the fields and fish from the water. Typical ingredients in Wigilia dishes include whitefish, carp, herring, mushrooms, cabbage, beets, cheeses, potatoes, eggs, noodles (including filled dumplings called pierogi), fruits, poppy seeds, honey and nuts.
It is also a night of family and fun with the telling of a magical legend, as Wigilia folklore suggests animals can talk in a human voice on Christmas Eve. And speaking of animals, the family pet also receives a special treat which commemorates Polish farmers of olden times taking leftovers from the family Wigilia meal to the barn animals.
Following dinner, gifts are exchanged and Polish carols (koledy) are sung, either at hoe or at the traditional vigil Mass attended by many families. The Christmas Eve Mass is known as Mass of the Shepard or “Pasterka” as the shepards were the first to visit the infant Jesus after his birth.
Greetings are exchanged by saying “Wesolych Swiat, Bozego Narodzeniz i Szczesliwego Nowego Roku” – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!