Święta Bożego Narodzenia, Christmas 2009

December 24, 2009

This Christmas was very special for me. I’ve only visited my families in Poland during the summer, so this was my very first holiday in the motherland! I spent it with my grandma and aunt in Józefów (my aunt, uncle and cousins in Częstochowa already claimed me for Easter).

We celebrated in the typical Polish fashion. And, I got to decorate the Christmas tree! (As you’ll see, it’s a little different-looking than ours in the US… the pines in Poland are a little bare compared to ours–but they smell amazing for a LONG time and there’s more room to see all the ornaments! And, if your family has been collecting ornaments for… forever, like mine, you get to show them off at their best–and unobstructed). By the way, Polish people buy their Christmas trees much later than we do in the U.S. Traditionally, they’re decorated on Christmas Eve. We did it the day before.

This Santa ornament is so old, its face has rubbed away with time…

This one’s pretty interesting– I think he’s supposed to be a Mongolian soldier. I particularly like the way he’s hanging by the neck…

This is one of the many hand-painted ornaments that have survived throughout the years…

So, Christmas Eve dinner, or Wigilia, is über traditional– you’re supposed to fast all day and then stuff yourself with a customary 12 dishes–none of which can contain meat. Here’s what it all looked like:

The most important tradition associated with Christmas Eve dinner is sharing an opłatek–a wafer–identical to Communion hosts used during a Catholic mass– but unconsecrated. The wafers are usually embossed with Christmas related images–the nativity scene is most common. In Polish tradition, family members break off a piece of each others’ wafer and give a blessing along with it. It can be something like “I wish you health, good luck in school/work,..” or something like, “I wish you gain the strength and will-power to quit smoking” or even, “I hope you find a nice, smart boy… not one that sells carp at the outdoor market.”

So, after sharing the opłatek with one another, we pray together, and then the feasting begins! Here’s what we had: sałatka jarzynowa, or vegetable salad– I made it this year! It’s a mix of various cooked vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celery root, potatoes, sweet peas), as well as pickles, apples, and eggs–all cut up in the same size, and in a mustard-mayonnaise dressing. I know it probably sounds weird– but, trust me, it’s delicious. Next to the sałatka, there’s the infamous śledzie, or what I like to call ‘Polish sushi.’ Not a fan. Pickled herring– can be marinated in different ways: in oil and onion, in sour cream and lemon, stuffed with plums, etc etc. Most Polish people love them, plus, it’s a tradition.

These are racuszki grzybowe— or mushroom fritters. They’re quite nice. Whole dried mushroom caps are rehydrated overnight and then battered and fried.

The sweet version is made with apples– racuszki z jabłkami.

Another must-have for a traditional Polish Wigilia is carp. Christmas is probably the only time Poles buy and eat carp. Some even buy the fish, still living, and keep it in their bathtubs, so that it’s freshly killed for dinner. But that’s crazy. And unsanitary. We asked the carp guy at the outdoor market to kill it for us. Traditionally, the fish is breaded and fried (on the right), and also prepared in jelly– karp w galarecie (top left). Not like raspberry or peach jelly– jelly as in the gelatine cooked out of the fish bones… another Polish dish of which I’m not a fan. My family buys carp every year in the U.S., too, but it tastes totally different than it does here. Polish carp is almost sweet– it’s actually really tasty. But it has so many bones… and I’m impatient. The bottom left dish is cabbage with mushrooms– kapusta z grzybami.

These marinated mushrooms–grzyby marynowane–were hand-picked by my aunt and grandma in the forest nearby our house!

Another must-have for Wigilia is fruit punch, or kompot. Dried fruit– usually apples, plums, apricots–are stewed together with a cinnamon stick, cloves, and sugar.

This is another interesting dish. Kluski z makiem, noodles with poppy seeds. The poopy seeds are soaked and then ground up, and then mixed with raisins and honey.

We had two kinds of soup: mushroom soup, grzybowa:

and red borscht with mushroom ‘tortellini,’ barszcz czerwony z uszkami: CLASSIC for Wigilia.

This is also a classic Polish dish, but is NOT eaten for Wigilia because it has meat in it. We had it on Christmas Day. Bigos–cabbage stewed with mushrooms and different kinds of meat: chicken, pork, and beef. Probably as Polish as you can get.

Another tradition in Poland on Christmas Eve is zimne ognie!! Sparklers! The kids don’t care about presents– they’re a bunch of pyromaniacs, really. They just want to play with sparklers. Everyone sits around singing Christmas carols, or kolędy, as they twirl them around.

Litka– my dad’s cousin’s daughter. So cute!

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