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Many immigrant families across America try to preserve traditions brought from their countries of origin. It is easier said than done, especially when children, first generation Americans, are born. They do not want to be different. Parents need to be creative to find a balance between their culture and needs of their children. Here’s how one TravelingMom mixed her Polish heritage with American Christmas traditions into a one-of-a-kind celebration.
Mixing Polish and American Christmas traditions in the USA
Read on for insights into my memories of Christmas traditions in Poland, and how I, along with other Polish immigrants, have mixed Polish and American Christmas traditions in the USA. At times funny, at times challenging, these memories are as unique as our stories.
Memories of Christmas in Poland
Days before Christmas in Poland
Growing up in a communist country had a lot of challenges. One of them was that Polish stores were almost empty. We did not starve, but it was difficult to buy food or anything else. I remember the days before Christmas as a very stressful time for adults trying to hunt for what they needed for holidays. It required multiple trips to the stores and standing in long lines. Even Christmas trees were difficult to buy, especially decent-looking ones. If there were any street decorations, I can’t remember. At Christmas, Poland looked like any other day – gray.
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Christmas Eve Dinner in Poland: Wigilia
This most important holiday for Polish families was officially a workday. A majority of women would work half a day and then go home to prepare the traditional Christmas Eve supper. Trees were going up on that day too. Of course, just like in America, at least one string of lights would not work. Imagine the stress! Why it was all done at the last minute, it is hard to tell. Tradition, I guess!
With everything in place, we would wait for a first star to appear in the sky. That was a sign to start supper and share opłatek (a thin tasteless wafer) with each other as a sign of love and well wishes.
There was always an extra plate on the table for an unexpected guest, a symbolic invitation to anyone in need of company and a meal on this special evening. Christmas Eve marked the last day of Advent, so there was no meat. Instead, there was a variety of fish, red beet soup, pierogi stuffed with wild mushrooms, poppy seed cake and other baked goodies.
The most anticipated part of the supper was the arrival of Święty Mikołaj (Saint Nicholas) or Santa Claus in America. Sometimes he would show up in person and scare me to death, but most often he would just magically leave presents under the tree.
After supper, it was time to sing Christmas carols. In my house, it was rather a non-synchronized singing due to the fact that my father did not have a good ear for music, but it did not stop him from being loud.
Christmas Day – Dzień Bożego Narodzenia
It was time to relax and play with toys from Mikołaj. It was a lazy day for everyone in my house. We ate leftovers from Christmas Eve, played games, and watched TV. This often continued into December 26th, called the second day of Christmas, which was another official holiday.
Arriving in America
Polish American Christmas traditions in the U.S.
The days preceding Christmas
When I left Poland, I promised myself I would never wait in line again. That’s why Black Friday is not for me! In recent years, I became a huge fan of online stores so most of my shopping is done online. Just like other Americans, we decorate our house in and out and our tree is up two weeks before Christmas. We keep it longer though, at least until January 6th, Three Kings Day.
On a few occasions, to put ourselves in Christmas spirit, we took trips to see a huge light display at Koziar’s Christmas Village. That was a fun thing to do for the entire family. Christmas parties – we did not have them in Poland. I love them!
Polish American Christmas Eve in the U.S.
In Poland, we celebrated Christmas Eve with immediate family, but since we did not have anyone in Pennsylvania, we found other Polish immigrants who became our surrogate family. We have been celebrating the holidays together for 30 years now. Just like other American children, my Pennsylvania-born son used to set out cookies and milk for Mikołaj and carrots for the reindeer. Then just like Polish children, he would look for the first star in the sky.
That followed with traditional opłatek and Polish dishes. Continuing with the Polish way of celebration, Mikołaj would come to our house on Christmas Eve. As soon as Daniel understood the concept, he asked why Mikołaj was choosing Polish children first. Our answer: Mikolaj is smart and knows where each American family came from and follows their tradition. It worked!
At the right moment, a designated person would sneak out, remove the cookies, milk, and carrots, place all the presents by the door (often placed for convenience in large garbage bags), ring the bell and run. It could only mean one thing – Mikolaj was here!
With a large group of people involved, this master plan did not always work perfectly. On one occasion, two bags full of garbage also appeared under the tree! After opening presents, just like in Poland, we sing Christmas carols. Compared to some guys in our group, my father was a Pavarotti!
Polish American Christmas Day in the U.S.
We meet again and follow the traditional American menu, but now some of the “children,” first-generation Americans, are already gone. Now adults, they travel early in the morning to their spouses’ families to celebrate Christmas Day the American way.
More than 20 years ago, they waited for Mikołaj on Christmas Eve. Now their kids will be waiting for Santa to bring their presents through the chimney on Christmas Day. (My question is why, with Santa being so smart and rather big at his waist, could he not come up with an easier entryway?)