For better or for worse, I was unable to go home for the Christmas break. In reality, this may have been for the best because I was able to spend both Christmas Eve (24th of December) and Christmas day (25th of December) with some very kind and gracious people. I was also able to see the customs and traditions that are typical of these days in Poland.
I generally believe that in our modern times the best part of Christmas is the fact that it is an opportunity for spending time with family and friends and appreciating all that we have. We try to do this in America, even though many times capitalism and commercialism get in the way of this. I was very happy to see that in Poland Christmas time is largely a time for being with friends and family. The tradition of opłatki (Christmas wafers) is a very nice piece of this sentiment, and I think it is a great way to appreciate what you have and also share your best wishes with those who are close to you. Most families don't have anything similar to this tradition in America, and I wish we did because it is a great way to tell those close to you that you care about them. In my family, we did always keep a spot open at our table, and when we asked our Grandma about this, she would often say that it was for a weary traveler who might happen to come by, or else that it was for Jesus himself. As a child, I never really understood this tradition, but I was happy to hear that many families in Poland also keep an open table-setting at their table for Christmas Eve dinner.
Besides the feelings and meanings of Christmas, there was, of course, new and different food to try! Barszcz or beetroot soup is without a doubt very good. Pierogi with cabbage and mushrooms are also delicious. The many styles and types of fish that different families eat was also interesting. Greek-style fish seemed to be the most common and was what I ate on Christmas Eve. In America, we generally eat meat on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but this, of course, varies greatly and depends on the individual families and their traditions. I will say that most families in America have their larger meal on Christmas Day instead of Christmas Eve and most times the main dish is either a large ham or a large turkey, but again this depends on the family. There are many dishes in America that are typical for Christmas dinner, but most families don't have the tradition of twelve dishes, as some families have in Poland. This sounds very tasty as the more dishes, the better, however, it seems like a lot of work for whoever has to cook and prepare the meal!
Of course, we can't talk about Christmas time without talking about Santa and Mikołaj! I was surprised that Santa comes after Christmas Eve dinner in Poland because in America he usually comes in the middle of the night on the 24th of December. I had different opinions about these different times, and I am still uncertain which time is best for Santa to come to the home. For example, in Poland, I do like that Santa comes right after dinner. However, this seems like a logistical problem for the parents because they must send the kids upstairs or outside or somewhere and then quickly have Santa appear. This leaves little time to have things fully prepared and ready to go it seems. On the other hand, in America Santa comes during the middle of the night. So, that the kids are all sleeping and parents have all night to place the presents under the Christmas Tree and get things arranged just right. However, a negative of this American way is that many times children don't sleep at all on Christmas Eve and also wake everyone up in the house very early. So, in America, parents have more time to get everything arranged and all the presents prepared, but then they usually have to wake up very early on Christmas day. In Poland, it seems to be the opposite; parents have less time to have Santa appear and get the presents prepared, but then they are able to sleep in on Christmas Day. I am not certain if I can say definitively that one system is better than the other. I can only say that they are different.
Regardless of when Santa appears the family with whom I spent Christmas Eve made sure that I had a good time. They were very welcoming and hospitable, but they declined to tell me that someone at their dinner would have to dress up as Santa. I tried my best to argue that I am not a good actor and that I could not fill the role of Santa, but they would not hear any of my complaints and forced me to dress up as Santa/Mikołaj! In all honesty, I was at first not very happy about this, but they were very nice and made sure that I looked the part of a real Mikołaj. After getting over my nervousness about having to be Santa, it was actually quite a lot of fun. I was able to hand out the presents to everyone, listen to carols, and even got some tasty cake as a reward for my 'service' of being Santa. It was my first time ever dressing up as Santa and I dare say that I might like to do it again.
So, I spent my Christmas Eve and Christmas day without my own family, but I still felt very welcome here in Poland. There are many good traditions surrounding these days that I was able to observe. I was slightly sad that I was not with my own family, but everyone here made sure that I had a good time and I thank everyone who was gracious enough to welcome me into their homes during this special time of the year.
Born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan David was raised by his parents with his two sisters and brother.