There is a night, when the animals can speak in a human voice, the water in rivers turns into honey, wine and liquid gold. The ghosts wander looking for their homes and the supernatural powers take over control. Everything is possible during the Christmas Eve’s night, according to the Polish folk tradition.
Most of those beliefs and customs origins from the Slavic people customs, in particular from “Święto Godowe" which used to begin always on the 21st/22nd of December and lasted until the 6th of January. "Święto" means "Celebration" and "Godowe" comes from "god" - "year" in old Slav language. It was a time betwen the end of the old year and the beginning of a new year. Side note for all Polish speakers: "styczeń" comes from the verb "stykać się" - the old and the new year "stykają się". Another theory says that Christmas originates from the ancient times, especially from Saturnalia - a celebration of the Roman deity Saturn. Most of the ancient celebrations and customs were later incorporated into Christian traditions and survived until today.
The festive day used to begin early in the morning. The father of the house used to go to the woods to get a small tree or some green branches. At home those branches were decorated with small apples, nuts, cookies, ribbons, crepped paper and Christmas wafers. The decorated branch is called “podłaźniczka" or "rajski sad" - "edens orchard". Finally it was hung by the father under the ceiling. The "eden’s garden" was belived to bring luck, fertility and happiness to the household. This custom was still alive in 1920’s and it may still be perserved in some regions of Poland.
Some of the traditions you might already know from the Essential Guide to Polish Christmas. Sharing of the Christmas wafer was a significant part of the night. It was believed that those who eat it won’t be hungry the whole year. It was also supposed to protect the home from the flood, fire and other natural disasters. Some wafers always were thrown into the well to make the water healthy. Animals also had their special wafers, ensuring their health and strength.
Dinner started with the first star in the sky. It was also time to give Christmas gifts. Actually this tradition origins from Roman Saturnalia.
Every detail was important during the Christmas Eve’s dinner. Table cloth must have been pure white. It symbolized truth, pureness and perfection. Underneath, same as today, straw and hay were placed, symbolizing the birth of Jesus in a stable. Also the number of people eating must have been even. During the dinner only the hostess could leave the table - otherwise someone could die in the following year!
The number of dishes must have been uneven - usually from five to seven for peasants, nine for nobility and eleven or thirteen for aristocracy. Carp, herring, barszcz, cabbage, etc. were eaten, but also other goods not so common today, just like almond soup were eaten. Nowadays twelve dishes are required. However, same as today, it was better to taste all the dishes to be lucky in the future.
In the 19th century it was still believed that spirits of our ancestors join the Christmas Eve’s dinner, and you can see them sitting in their usual places if you would look to through the keyhole into the room. That’s why even now we leave one spare plate for “Baby Jesus” or for a “wanderer in need”.
It was also another occasion for girls to foretell their success in love (do you remember Andrzejki?). They used to pick one straw from underneath the table cloth. Green one meant a fast marriage, yellow that they will be alone forever, and totally dry meant they have to wait another year.
Every region has their own folk beliefs, and in many small towns across Poland they may be still cultivated. If you want to see how looked a traditional chamber ready for Christmas you should visit Ethnographic Museum in any Polish city. The one in Warsaw is pretty big and has special exhibition about folk traditions… I remember going there in primary school every year :D Good times…
Hope you enjoyed this short article and perhaps you got to know something new. Now it’s time for another great song ;-) This time something in folk(ish)… this is a rendition of “Z narodzenia Pana” carol. It’s performed by a Polish band Zakopower - they mix modern music with traditional Polish highlanders style.