Traditions, traditions, traditions...

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December 6th 2016
Published: February 5th 2019
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It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since our Christmas in Poland. With two New Zealand Christmases already gone by, it only makes sense to bring back the memories and talk tradition! So here it goes...

As we were heading back to Poland, I was a bit sad that our trip had come to an end but at the same time I was looking forward to spending some time with my parents. Poland welcomed us with a bit of snow. As we landed in Warsaw it was white all around. From here we caught a train to Malbork where my dad picked us up to take us home. My parents were over the moon to see Millie. We decided to wait with sharing the news about the little bean until I had a confirmation from the doctor. A few days later a little heartbeat was confirmed and we were all jumping for joy. From now on it was all about relaxing and preparing for Christmas. A few days before Christmas the pace picked up a bit as always – some very last minute shopping, the usual frustrations about leaving it until the last moment, even more frustrations about the amount of people everywhere in the shops, then cooking and baking... and it was Christmas Eve already!

Then eating, family, family, family, some more eating and we welcomed 2017! Another few weeks of blissful not doing anything at all, more time with the family and even a proper winter during our last week in Poland as well! Yay! Millie’s first proper snow and a very big snowman in the garden as well. A snowman she would wave hello to each morning and say goodbye to every night – super sweet! Overall December and January were all about relaxing and spending time with family. Even though we were excited about going to Hong Kong and heading back ‘home’, not exactly knowing where that was just yet, I was very sad about leaving my family as well. Seeing how attached my parents were to Millie... pretty tough to say the least!

As I’m sitting and typing this now with another two Christmases already gone, all I can think about is how different New Zealand Christmas to the Polish Christmas is. Two worlds apart! I have to say that our first New Zealand Christmas hardly felt like a Christmas at all! First of all – summer? Flip flops and Christmas simply don’t match... All the people living in the southern hemisphere would probably disagree, but I’m just not used to it at all. Not to mention that Christmas Eve is not celebrated here at all, while in Poland it is THE DAY! Not to mention the totally different food... Same holiday and yet so different.

So what really are the differences? Let’s maybe start with the fact that Poland is a mostly catholic country, so it’s not a surprise that many Christmas traditions are closely connected to our religion. The whole December is meant to be a month of peace and calm, quiet time to reflect on the past year and prepare for the big day – Christmas Eve, awaiting the birth of Jesus Christ. Some people might take it a bit more seriously and run to church more often – meaning not only on Sundays but during the week as well! While for the others December is just like everywhere else… Decorations on the streets start popping up all around, shops are full of people frantically looking for presents… and as the days are going by the real preparations begin… Remember to make cookies two weeks ahead of Christmas so you wouldn’t be biting into rocks on the Christmas Eve... a week before start putting away the beetroots to ferment to have that beautiful burgundy red stock ready for THE BIG DAY... clean up the house again and again... my mum making endless shopping lists and wondering what to make for Christmas even though it is pretty much the same stuff every year... buy Christmas tree to dress it up on the big day and finally buy a carp and let it swim for a while in your bathtub - more about that later... Well that’s more or less how I remember it when being a kid.

A few things obviously have changed throughout the years. For one – we do put up the Christmas tree a bit earlier now. Western tradition of putting it up BEFORE Christmas actually seem to make more sense than putting it up ON Christmas Eve and keeping it well AFTER Christmas… Apparently we are ‘allowed to’ keep the tree until the beginning of February… Whaaaat? Not sure who made up that rule… As for the carp, well… that’s one tradition that I’ll be throwing out the window for sure! I do remember my parents buying a carp or two (I guess depending on the size and number of guests) and letting them swim in the bathtub until the long awaited day (for us) and a very sad day (for the carp) came and someone had to do the honours to kill the beast – hello dad! Now even though carp is still the main dish on most Polish tables on Christmas Eve, it’s usually bought ready for consumption (no drastic actions required). I’m pretty sure carp is gone from my Christmas menu for good – first of all because it’s not easy to come around in New Zealand and secondly because I’m not a big fan – definitely plenty of nicer fish around.

And then the big day comes… It gets a bit frantic with some more last minute cleaning and lots of cooking and baking involved. Once it starts getting dark outside, it’s time to set the table as dinner is meant to start when the first star appears in the sky. This again is closely connected with our religion – it’s a symbol of a Bethlehem star leading the three kings to the place where baby Jesus was born. I do remember as a kid looking out the window and searching for the stars... Realistically dinner never really started with the first star but looking out for it added that special little touch to the whole celebration.

There are a couple of traditions around setting the table as well. The first one – leaving an extra plate and seat for an unexpected guest. According to the tradition if a homeless person or a traveller from afar knocks on your door, you’re meant to invite them over and share your dinner with them. I have never heard of anyone actually receiving an unexpected guest at their Xmas dinner and as noble as it sounds I have some serious doubts whether anyone would be so eager to invite a total stranger off the street to their homes to share their dinner with them... I am open to having anyone I know, who might be spending Xmas on their own, to join my family for celebration but inviting a total stranger might be a bit much.

Once all the food is prepared and everyone is ready to sit around the table, there is another tradition that needs to be ‘fulfilled’ first – sharing of ‘oplatek’. ‘Oplatek’ is a thin wafer, the same kind of wafer that you would receive during Communion time at Christian masses. So before dinner starts, the man/woman of the house gives a piece of wafer to everyone around, says a few words and then each person comes to another, one by one, sharing a piece of wafer and wishing each other best wishes. I wasn’t really a big fan about this part – probably because all the food was staring at me already from the table but I couldn’t dig into it just yet...

So now finally we can eat. It is sad that there should be exactly 12 dishes on the table – referring to the twelve apostles. Even though we were trying to stick to that tradition, I’m pretty sure there were always more than 12 dishes on our table – I guess it depends what you really count as a dish. It is also said that you should at least try every single one of these 12 dishes and that it will bring you luck for the upcoming 12 months.

So what’s on menu on Christmas Eve? Well, let me tell you maybe what’s not on it first… There’s no meat on it! Yep, that’s right! 12 meat-free dishes! We start our dinner with soup. Depending on the region, there might be a few different choices of the type of soup that is served that day, however with all certainty I can say that ‘barszcz’ is definitely a preferred option amongst many families. I have to say that nothing sounds more Christmassy to me than a Christmassy barszcz. I absolutely love it and that’s one thing that most certainly I will be trying to carry on while creating traditions for my family. It’s not just a normal beetroot soup, but it’s the essence of it – clear broth with a beautiful burgundy colour. It’s usually made on a fermented ‘juice’ from beetroot and takes a week to prepare – it’s meant to give a special depth of flavour to it. When you’re on a deadline or the fermenting didn’t exactly go as planned (my first NZ Xmas experience), you need to either buy beetroot concentrate (saviour during my first NZ Xmas) or google a recipe without it (I didn’t bother with fermenting and went too late searching for concentrate on our second NZ Xmas). I’m happy to confirm I have found a perfect one-day recipe and I’m pretty sure I will be sticking to that one for the Christmases to come. Barszcz came out beautiful – even Grant gave me a pat on the shoulder… Although, what does he really know about barszcz? 😉

You do need something to accompany the ‘barszcz’ with though and again depending on the region and family traditions, there are different dishes served with it. Most families will probably make ‘uszka’ (kind of little dumplings) filled with mushrooms, cabbage/sauerkraut or both. I have made ‘uszka’ once a few years back – with mushrooms and walnuts (may sound like a strange combo) and they came out really yummy, but… it’s way too much work to prepare them or maybe I simply I lack the skills to make them fast enough, anyhow I will be sticking to my family’s tradition in that matter. Not sure how to call them, let’s say ‘croquettes’ maybe? They are basically little puff pastries filled with sauerkraut and mushrooms – really fast to make and absolutely delish!

Two dishes down, 10 to go! The next big thing on the menu is… carp of course! I seriously doubt whether anyone in Poland eats carp on any other day but Christmas Eve which is even more of a puzzle as to why this particular fish takes the throne on the Christmas Eve’s table? Anyhow… Carp is served in many different ways – traditional Jewish style (Polish Jews tradition), fried, roasted, stuffed, in jelly, you name it! In my family carp Jewish style was pretty much always on the table – the recipes differ a bit from family to family, but in general it’s boiled in fish stock and served with raisins and almonds. My dad adds a special twist to it – very secret recipe – pretty sure beer is a part of it though…

Apart from carp another ‘important’ fish on the table is the good old herring. Again it can be served in gazillion different ways and since it’s widely sold in different forms and shapes, that’s one dish that you can actually buy prepared and put it straight on the table. Pickled rolled herring with prunes or cherries, yum! Or with beetroot as a salad, yum, yum, yum! In my family we usually prepare it two ways – with garlic, mayo & pickled cucumbers and with onions & oil. Might not sound too exciting but we love it. And if I’ll ever find herring in New Zealand I will be continuing with the tradition for sure – might go crazy and add a herring/beetroot salad to it as well, who knows?

Then of course any other type of fish can make it to a Christmas table as well. Another popular dish is a fish Greek style, which funnily has absolutely nothing to do with Greece so not sure where the name came from. It’s any kind of white fish, usually cod, fried and then roasted with grated carrot and parsnip mixed with tomato concentrate & a bit of mustard. Greek or not, it is a pretty good dish. During our first NZ Christmas I have recreated the recipe a bit (if not improved it I might say) and made it with grated carrot and zucchini and some beautiful curry powder instead. Think that one might be a keeper as well as I made it again for NZ Christmas nr 2!

Then there might be a few more dishes to complete the 12 dishes menu – one of them is ‘pierogi’ which actually never appeared on our Christmas table, but is a must on that day for many Polish families and another one would be ‘bigos’ which is usually sauerkraut mixed with white cabbage stewed with tomato concentrate, different kinds of meat and mushrooms. Obviously meat-free version of ‘bigos’ is prepared for Christmas Eve. Finally there are plenty of side dishes on the Christmas table as well - boiled or roasted potatoes, salads, the choice is plenty…

Once all the bellies are full, we need a small break for more food to come – hello desserts!, so while the table is being cleaned up and new set of plates arrives, this is usually the time for presents. That’s right, we open presents on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. When we were kids my grandpa would go looking for Santa and while he was gone Santa would arrive. But we weren’t fooled, maybe a bit confused as to why Santa was wearing grandpa’s shoes and speaking grandpa’s voice? Funnily the history would repeat itself last Christmas when Grant was asked to perform Santa duties during one of our Polish playcentre sessions. He went looking for Santa and when he was gone, Santa magically appeared… When Daniel saw Santa/Dad he most certainly wasn’t impressed… He just screamed his guts out desperately looking for help trying to run away from the scary man in the red suit while holding onto me. Millie was a bit off as well, but in a totally different way. She wouldn’t cry, she just stayed as far away from Santa as possible and looked at him a couple of times very confused. Once daddy was back, all of us had a bit of a chat. It turned out that Millie wouldn’t be fooled either! She just didn’t understand why dad was Santa? So we had to explain that he was just helping out Santa that’s all. She didn’t seem convinced as to why dad had to dress as Santa, but eventually just accepted it as bizarre as it was… Next year we’ll have to do better... 😉

So after a few presents are open, there is time to eat some more. That’s when all sorts of cakes make an appearance. Every Christmas regardless of how many people were present on Christmas Eve, there were at least 3 cakes on our table. I won’t even mention the mountain of cookies my mum bakes every year as well… So what kind of cakes are we having for Christmas? Again depends on family traditions and family favourites as well… There are two cakes that are made by most families – Christmas cheesecake and poppy seed cake – recipes per family can differ significantly. My mum used to make poppy seed cake, and after a while just started buying a small piece ready-made, but to be honest poppy seed cake just didn’t seem to be going down well at our home, so finally we just gave up on it altogether. Some families can’t imagine Christmas Eve without one though. Cheesecake on the other hand… well… I’ll never say no to a cheesecake! Our favourite recipe is a cheesecake made with quark and topped with either pineapple or peaches – yum! So this cake pretty much always lands on our Christmas table. The other cakes differ from year to year – I guess we can’t make up our minds which ones we really really like, but on the other hand a bit of variety is also good. So it can be anything from honey cakes, chocolate cakes, carrot cakes, apple cakes, you name it… Whatever we feel like eating that year!

You’d think that this would just bring Christmas Eve to an end since there was nothing left to do but to pass out on the couch from overeating. Well… for many people that would be the case, but for some this is only the beginning of Christmas Eve celebrations as the most important part of the day is yet to come… The midnight Mass that is - experiencing the rebirth of Jesus Christ. This mass can take any time between 1-3 hours, so let’s hope you ate enough and saved up some energy as the night is still long… I don’t remember ever going to that mass, if I did, it was quickly erased from my memory… When I was a teenager I do remember maybe once sneaking out with my friends and pretending to be going to the mass and instead just catching up with them. Sorry mum & dad! You’d be surprised how many Polish families still go to that mass though… Churches are packed and if you’re not early enough in the church, you most likely will be standing throughout the whole mass… No thanks!

So that would finally conclude our Polish celebrations. After reading through my scribbles, I actually realised that I will probably let some of these traditions go… A couple of them are definite keepers – but these seem to be food related only! Still the idea of a Polish Christmas will always be associated with all these traditions and a wonderful time spent with my family. After all this is what this whole thing is about – tweaking the traditions to make it work for your family and creating your own! Let’s see what the next Christmas brings…

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5th February 2019

Poland for the holidays
Great that you could go home. Congratulations on the new baby. Don't let any of your traditions go... they sound marvelous.
28th February 2019

Poland for the holidays
Thank you! We'll try to keep as many traditions as we can.
7th February 2019

Thank you so much for your wonderful description of a Polish Christmas...
especially the food. My wife Linda is partly Polish...from Krakow...and she also makes some of the dishes. I love perogies, especially. I hope to see more posts from you on your life in New Zealand.
28th February 2019

Polish Christmas
Thank you for reading Bob. Your wife has Polish roots? How about that! Nice to hear she's spoiling you with some of the Polish dishes. I hope to write more about New Zealand too.. Lots of blogs in my head, just need to find time to write them... Some day...

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