Monday, December 28, 2009

Sylwester or New Year’s Eve traditions in Poland

The oracle Sibyl made a prophecy that the year 1000 would be the end of the world. The dragon Leviathan imprisoned in the dungeons of Vatican by the pope Sylvester I was to bring about the doom waking up from his sleep and destroying the world. People were awaiting the midnight with fear and uncertainty, however, to their relief the dragon did not come out, their despair turned into euphoria. The current pope Sylvester II blessed everybody and in his memory December 31st is celebrated in such a festive way to this day and is called Sylvester.

New Year's Eve in Poland is celebrated with costume parties and social gatherings spanning the transition of the year at midnight. Fireworks displays are also part of the celebration. At midnight people drink a champagne toast and wish each other all the best, this is a much-loved tradition, something bubbly is always a festive way to commemorate a special occasion. Traditionally in Poland Tokaj - the Hungarian white wine was the favourite choice. One could also tell fortune from the bubbles – if they were moving slowly that would signify a calm year without problems, however, if they were moving about quickly that would signify some important changes coming.

New Year’s Eve in the cities in Poland can be celebrated at more or less formal balls. Some of them have a long-lasting tradition, as for example the ball at the Warsaw Philharmonic Society, the sportsmen’s ball or the ball at the castle in Golub-Dobrzyn attended by “the man of the year”. A New Year’s Eve formal ball always begins with a polonaise.

In the country the New Year’s Eve day gave in the past an occasion to unpunished pranks of all kinds. It was not unusual for the village jesters to disassemble somebody’s wagon and reassemble it on the roof of a house, or to smear windows and door knobs with tar, or only to hide pots that had been drying on a fence. In Zywiec region for example, groups of boys disguised as devils, bears, Gypsies and beggars scour the village and with the earsplitting whip crackling and rattling of empty cans they will accost any young woman they come across and knock her down in snow. All the tricks are forgiven for they are believed to be ousting the old passing year.

When it comes to celebrating the New Year, every country and every culture has its unique routines and charms to influence the incoming year. They're believed to bring into the new year good fortune, health, prosperity, and love. Whether superstitions first showed up as a deep-seated need to make sense of the world around us, or whether it was to control the world around us isn’t important. What is important is the curiosity, hope, laughter, and family unity that traditions undoubtedly bring to every family from every culture. Below is a conglomeration of rules, rituals and beliefs from Poland that are certain to christen the New Year as the best year yet.

It is customary to kiss the one you love or hope to love at midnight as if to say, "Congratulations, to us for making it through another year!". Kissing your spouse or significant other at midnight ensures that you will remain intimate with that person. To not kiss means a cold relationship for the year.

Whether it is a silent promise to one's self to stop telling white lies or a big declaration of intent to lose weight, a New Year's resolution is a must. Many find it easier to make a fresh beginning as symbolized by January 1. To avoid bad luck in the coming year it is also good to get rid of the current problems by writing them out on a red piece of paper and burning it.

It is common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year's Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.

Nothing goes out on that day – not even the garbage. The flip version of this rule is that nothing goes out until something new comes in. No money should be spent (that would be going out). One should also pay all the debts otherwise they will have financial problems in the coming year. No sweeping or dusting the first day of the year. The good luck could be swept out. If you have to sweep, you should sweep towards the center of the house and use a dust pan.

Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes "coming full circle," completing a year's cycle. For that reason, in some areas of Poland paczki or doughnuts were baked to assure wealth for the whole year. Another important characteristics of New Year’s Day was bread-baking. Different animals were shaped from the dough - sheep, rabbits, geese, cows. Godparents often gave these bread animals with best wishes to godchildren as presents.

Other traditions include, that those who wake up early on New Year’s Day will wake up early for the rest of the year and will be full of energy. Those who touched the floor with the right foot when getting up from bed could expect a lot of good luck the whole year. And those who wanted to get rich had to put change in a small bag and run through the fields shaking the bag and making a lot of noise. It is also good to avoid quarrelling and be friendly towards other people so as to spend the whole next year in such atmosphere.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Traditional Polish Christmas

Christmas Tree

As in most countries around the world we have adopted the German tradition of decorating a Christmas tree. However, an old Polish custom exists, observed to this day in small villages: a treetop of a pine tree is cut off and then turned upside down and hung from the ceiling. Most people use fir trees smelling of the forest and decorate them with lights (originally candles), tinsel, baubles, candies wrapped in coloured wrappers, gilded walnuts, fruit and ornaments (snowflakes, snowman, icicles, bells and angels imagery are popular choices). An angel or star is often placed at the top of the tree, representing the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity. Another old custom is to hang the mistletoe under the ceiling, it is a symbol of love, peace and goodwill and is believed to be the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore bringing good luck and health. Decorations create a unique ambiance in the house and make the festive mood more vibrant.

Nativity Scene

A representation of the Nativity Scene is also often displayed in the house, it exhibits figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary's husband, Joseph and other characters from the Biblical story such as shepherds, the Magi, and angels. The figures are usually displayed in a stable. and people are encouraged to compete and create most original or realistic ones. Kraków szopka (pron.: shop-ka), or nativity scene is a Christmas tradition dating back to the 19th century. Unlike traditional Nativity Scene, Kraków szopka portrays historical buildings from Kraków.

Christmas Gifts

We too adopted the tradition of Santa Claus. However, in our tradition he comes a day earlier--on Christmas Eve and we don’t open presents on Christmas day but after the traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas Eve Dinner

Traditionally we sit down to the dinner when the first star appears in the sky. Before dinner we break and share with the wafer, the holy bread usually blessed by the priest, while wishing one another all the best. That bread comes in small squares with pictures portraying moments from the life of Jesus or the saints. We traditionally have 12 dishes on the Christmas Eve table. We leave one set of plates extra on the table to show that we are happy to welcome any unexpected guests. Another custom is to put hay under the tablecloth. In my house we also used to put small coins under the table cloth or a fish scale in the wallet - both to bring prosperity. Among traditional Polish dishes there are: red borsch from red beets served with small dumplings filled with mushrooms or mushroom soup, pierogi-traditional Polish dumplings with cabbage and mushroom filling, herrings, and carp which is an absolute must and is served in all sorts of ways: fried, a la Greek, in aspic, Jewish style etc. For pudding there are traditionally cakes made with poppy seeds, my favourite is the so called kutia as it has plenty of nuts, figs and raisins and also other cakes like gingerbread or cheese cake. There are also some other regional dishes that vary throughout Poland.

“Pasterka” - the midnight mass on Christmas Eve

It literally means "the Shepherds' Mass". We traditionally go to church at midnight in memory of the shepherds who were the first people to find Jesus and sing Christmas carols together.

Christmas Day

We traditionally spend the Christmas day with family and the meals still have a festive character with the whole family gathering around the table.