Thursday 23 December 2010

Christmas Pole

So, another Christmas in Ireland for me, third one already. Time flies, doesn't it? This year I am going to celebrate it in Polish way, as I usually do. It's not very practical and kinda complicated (even with Polish food available here in Dublin, products are simply no good), but if anyone asked me what I like about my tradition the most, I would say: Christmas. Despite all the fever and nerves, all that cooking, shopping and cleaning, this is my favourite occasion. Recently it occurred to me that our Christmas customs are quite interesting an unusual to the foreigners I'd been talking to, so I though: what the bells, I might as well act as a cultural ambassador here and educate you a little.


Polish windows open to the inside and one can wash them themselves,
without hiring someone with a ladder/crane for it - simple, yet brilliant
This is absolutely unavoidable, like a full moon: thou shalt clean thine home. I am trying to avoid that haze as much as I can, but family pressure is always strong. Christmas time starts with huge cleaning that includes even the darkest corners of one's home. I've heard that it comes from Jewish tradition and symbolizes welcoming a new year with a clean break. OK, it is nice to have clean house for Christmas, but nowadays it's just hard to have a full-time job and perfect household, especially with cat hair flying every-fecking-where. I have cleaned few days ago and today have to redo it... Sigh.
So, cleaning. Including windows, floors, top of high furniture, lampshades and all other places you normally don't care about.

Czubek, 29 cm long,
perfect for a huge tree
Another constant and quite obvious element of preparation is shopping. We're going to do a lot of cooking, so we need products. We celebrate gathering as much of our family as possible, so we need a lot of presents. We put on our Christmas trees plenty of cute things (there's even a saying Choince we wszystkim ładnie - meaning: "everything looks nice on a Christmas tree"; my friend tends to call it baroque tree), so it's really hard to resist when you see some nice decoration for your choinka (just because you have bombs in all colours and shapes possible, but you don't have one shaped like an angel yet! woohoo!).

Which leads us to the nicest part of the preparation: decorating a Christmas tree. In my family usually it is done by children, they are very eager to do this since they can eat some candies while preparing hooks to hang out the rest. On the top we usually do not put an angel, but some weird spiky thing called czubek choinkowy (meaning: "the Christmas tree top" - scorn not its simplicity :D). Sometimes it's star-shaped too.

Czubek in Polish also means "wacko", so beware. It's all about the context ;)


This part is even more exhausting than cleaning. It is the tradition that there must be 12 (no, it's not a typo, twelve it is) dishes on the table during Dec 24th supper. The idea is to try a bit of every dish to have a good luck next year (12 months, figures). Fortunately, it's not as dramatic as it looks, for example, a soup with dumplings in it counts as two dishes. Bread is a dish, butter as well. Menu varies depending on the region of Poland, but there are some common elements:

beetroot soup with uszka
- a soup - in my home and mostly in the eastern part of the country it's beetroot soup with uszka (literally: "little ears", some sort of  mushroom ravioli), in the south it's a mushroom soup, central regions make a sour cabbage soup (kwaśnica or kapuśniak)
- a hot dish of cabbage (with mushrooms or with peas - the latter is rather disgusting and makes one's Christmas very farty experience, fortunately my family is the mushroom kind)
- dumplings (pierogi): cottage cheese & mash potato stuffing (so-called ruskie, literally: Russians; my boss who is Russian really lol'd at it) AND cabbage & mushroom stuffing
- herring fillets with onion - with sour cream or oil, usually both versions are served
- vegetable salad with mayonnaise (so-called "Italian salad")
- carp - usually served in several versions, my family prepares one fried in bread crumbles and one "Jewish", in grey onion sauce with raisins, recipe with sour jelly and vegetables is also very common; funny enough, even though carp is a very tasty fish, it is not eaten except for Christmas, one cannot even buy it at any other time
Nowadays it's rare, but when I was a kid, it was impossible
to buy a dead carp, we were buying alive ones, putting them
in the bath and then killing them on our own. How am I
supposed to be compassionate and kind when I was brought
up in the country where each household was turning into
a slaughterhouse during this special time? :D

- other fish dishes - at my home it's usually so-called ryba po grecku (literally: Greek fish salad; cod fillets fried with carrot, onion and tomato sauce, served cold)
- dessert with poppyseed - again, depends on a home, depends on a region; usually there is a roll cake with poppyseeds (so-called makowiec) and some sort of poppyseed salad - in the east and at my home it's kutia (poppyseeds+boiled wheat grain+raisins+figs+various types of nuts+honey+sweet cream), in the western part it's noodles with poppyseed and raisins
- other sweet things - mostly pies and cakes, like cheesecake, cupcakes etc.

Babka - a giant cupcake with a hole in the middle, more
common for Easter, but also eaten during Christmas; served sliced
Oh, I can hear it now: where's turkey? Well, we get to the most interesting part... (drum roll)

During Polish Christmas eve supper there is no meat and no alcohol.

Thus, loads of cabbage, dumplings and fish.

I can assure you, all dishes above are yummy, unfortunately quite difficult to prepare.


Finally, the supper itself. You might think that there isn't much of fooling around since we have to eat all that delicious 12 dishes we worked so hard to prepare, but it gets even more complex from here.

First of all, supper must start with the first star appearing in the sky. Obviously, my family is not very organized and I don't recall ever being on time with the commence of the feast, but this is the tradition. Secondly, celebration starts not with eating, but with opłatek (literally: a crisp) - each person is given a piece of white & very thin crisp and must approach every single person in the room in order to exchange Christmas wishes. During the exchange, one gets a bit of the crisp of the other person and must eat it to seal their wishful thinking. Opłatek is also widely celebrated in workplaces and schools shortly before Christmas holidays. Personally I think it's a beautiful moment and truly pictures the spirit of Christmas. I wish we had this here, it's a great opportunity to show one's good will and feelings towards all the people around you. No gifts, food or other distractions, just a good word and smile.
Opłatek is given away in churches, fee for it is voluntary and the crisp is consecrated.

Opłatek is usually patterned with nativity scenes
One more interesting thing: presents are opened straight after the supper, we do not wait until the next morning. This is really awesome :)


Kolędy (carols) are probably the only reason I'd ever liked going to church. They are all absolutely beautiful and singing them gives me a lot of joy. All of them are religious-themed, but rather loosely connected to the spiritual part of the occasion, more describing reaction of the surrounding (the shepherds, three wise men etc.) or feelings of Virgin Mary. My favourite one is Gdy śliczna panna (As the beautiful maiden) which is a lullaby sang by Mary to the baby Jesus just like a mother sings to her beloved baby, very sweet song.

At home we usually sing carols together with the whole family (during supper, sometimes even during cooking) and it's absolutely mandatory to me to accompany the crowd with my guitar. So, here it is (myself solo this time):

Sadly, carols are not usually played on the radio. However, there is another,

Little less serious tradition

"Last Christmas" by Wham. With the beginning of the December the haze starts and George Michael squeals about giving his heart zillion times a day, until New Year. This year someone even created an event on facebook called "'Last Christmas' on the radio" season. I hate this song, seriously.
I also hate "All I want for Christmas is you" by Mariah Carey, mostly because I hear it too often. But apart from these two, I like Christmas-themed songs a lot. Especially the classic ones like the one about Rudolf or White Christmas.

Another vital element of "new tradition" is Home Alone (and the sequel, of course) on Polsat channel . This year they initially planned to screen some other movies and got tons of letters from disappointed audience demanding seeing Kevin for 100th time. So, Kevin is back in the game and probably people will never ever dare to complain on these movies again.

There are only two certain things in this world:
death and Home Alone on TV during Christmas

Christmas without Kevin on Polsat
I feel as if I was about to spend Christmas alone

- Shouldn't you be in Polsat now?
- This year I'm on holidays!
- Really? See for yourself!
(news: "Finally, Christmas with Kevin")

Of course, it is essential that one goes to church during that time (especially to so-called Pasterka, literally: the shepherd's mass; starts on the verge of 24th and 25th). Well, I don't. I hate churches, I don't care about any religion at all. I believe that one can be a good human being without some guy in a dress who is trained to tell others what to do (No, Dougal, nazis are people who dress in black and tell others what to do, while us, Catholic Church... uhm... let's have a drink! - "Father Ted") - and that's exactly why I love Christmas. Being a rebel and rather eccentric bitch, I love the joy of giving, presence of my family and all that excitement buzzing in the air.

Thus, dear readers, whatever religion you're into, whatever your tradition is, may you all have a happy time full of love, friendship and peace.

Happy Christmas!!!
Wesołych Świąt!!!

Joyeux Noël!!!
Nollaig shona dhuit!!!

Polish carol for dessert: Bóg się rodzi (God is born)