In the most Polish houses the Christmas Eve is celebrated the same traditional way.
24th December with the first star we sit with our families at the formal capped table, we have a hay under the tablecloth and on the table there are 12 dishes. In the background there is a blinking Christmas Tree. There are usually even number of guests plus one additional place setting.
Among dishes there are obligatorily something with mushrooms, with cabbage, with nuts, with poppy seeds and everything fasting. The first is the wafer and then carols. The evening finishes with Midnight Mass.
And even if we don’t respect everything directly (for example at my home guests are those who we want to invite, that are especial and we don’t look at even number) or we can’t afford everything but we still make those traditions alive. They are so obvious for our Polish Christmas time that mentioning them is unnecessary. But let’s think about the origins of those traditions. Are they same obvious?
There are 12 Christmas Eve traditions of Polish houses.
Presently most of us put a handful of dry grass under the tablecloth. That is the leftover from the Old-Polish Christmas Eve when the whole table (or even the floor) was covered with hay. In the wealthier courts there were full sheaf of hay in the four corners of the room – one sheaf of barley, wheat and rye. That was a reminder of needy conditions that Saviour was born. Because that is a celebration of his birth.
There were times that people portended of the hay. That was a domain of the nubile women that (I can imagine that with blushed cheeks and giggle on the lips) pulled the arista of grass under the tablecloth. Green meant wedding before the next Christmas Eve, yellow – spinsterhood. Nevertheless, you don’t need to be giggly miss to ask for success in the coming year. When you pull the straight and strong grass that means affluent and peaceful year and bent, broken and poor means the year of trouble and problems.
During the Christmas Eve lighted candle has two meanings. First is a sign that Jesus Christ is reborn. That way we announce that to all that visit us and all who can see the light through the window. Second is a symbolic signpost for the Saint Family that we are ready to face them and they can find a place among us. That is an invitation to our home.
The festive candle is usually white (pureness), gold (wealthiness) or red (color of kings), is ornate with festive symbols and should be lighted since the beginning of the supper through the Midnight Mass.
3. Guests number and additional place setting
Polish hospitality is a thing that we pride ourselves on. To turn errant wanderer out was in Poland unthinkable. And not to admit him at the day as we remember even with Saviour “there was no place for them in the inn” and was born in “stable in poverty and coldness”, so that was almost like a sin. That is why we make an additional place setting for unexpected guest as a symbol. Many of us believe that in such place sit our ancestors or even Jesus Christ himself.
And it warms the cockles of our hearts at the thought that each year someone, somewhere can admit the wanderer.
There is also a tradition that says that number of participants of Christmas Eve supper should be an even number. That would mean the well-being for everyone during the next year. The most avoided number was of course 13 which is acclaimed as an unlucky number. Judas was thirteenth during the Last Supper. Since that episode came the superstition that if we have odd number of supper participants the first who stand up after the finished meal will die. People were so afraid about that so when they really had odd numbers they invited the service at the table. In the poorer homes they admitted a beggar.
4. Christmas Tree
Originally that should be a fir-tree however presently less orthodox allow also spruce and pine trees. The symbol of the Christmassy tree is unclear. One says that is a representation of lost by humanity (because of Adam and Eve) the tree of life. That is why in the past we hang the apples instead the glass balls which are popular nowadays. Second, more and more popular theory says that the green tree is a symbol of Jesus who is mind you a resource of life.
At the top there should be a star which is of course a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem that guided three kings to the stable where Christ was born. Angels hang at the twig supposed to care about home, chains were the symbols of sin and lights meant the Saviour who was the light for pagans.
5. First star
We can start the Christmas Eve supper when we find a first star at the sky. Star is another name of Christmas. Santa Claus has stars when he give gifts and in Greater Poland he is replaced by Santa Clause called “Gwiazdor” (from: Gwiazda – Star). All of that is of course a symbol of mentioned before Star of Bethlehem. That was the star that guided three kings to the stable where Christ was born. And that is the star that should tell us that it’s high time to start the most important supper during the year. Other words the star guides us to the table.
6. Evangel reading
The Christmas Eve supper in most Polish homes starts with reading the fragment of the gospel according to Saint Matthew or Luke about Nativity. The one who is reading is the oldest member of the family or the youngest reading child. Both versions are in use. That should remind us what is the reason we celebrate (which is not collecting the presents!) and also fill us with humility towards the fact that Saviour was born in poverty.
To be continued...