Many immigrant families across America try to preserve their 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. See how my family mixed our Polish heritage with American Christmas traditions into one of a kind celebration.
Polish Christmas Traditions – My Memories of Christmas in Poland (From a Long Time Ago)
Days before Christmas
Growing up in a communist country had a lot of challenges. One of them was the fact that Polish stores were almost empty. We did not starve, but it was difficult to buy food or anything else.
I remember days before Christmas as a very stressful time for adults trying to hunt for what was 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 streets decoration, I can’t remember. At Christmas, Poland looked like at any other day – gray.
Christmas Eve – Wigilia
This most important holiday for Polish families was officially a work day. A majority of women would work half a day and then go home to prepare 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 a last day of Advent, so there was not meat; instead there was a variety of fish, red beet soup, pierogi stuffed with wild mushrooms, and the end a 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 (see how St. Nicholas became Santa ). 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. That often continued into December 26th, called a second day of Christmas, which was another official holiday.
Mixing of Polish and American Traditions After Arriving in America
Days before Christmas
When I left Poland, I promised to myself I would never wait in line again, therefore Black Friday is not for me! I prefer another traditional way of shopping in the Northeast – a shopping trip to New York City.
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 – my husband’s birthday.
Christmas parties – we did not have them in Poland. I am all for it!
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 are celebrating holidays together for 25 years now.
Just like other American children our Pennsylvania-born son, Daniel, was putting 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 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. Answer: he 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, put all the presents by the door ( often put 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 not always worked 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 this group, my father was a Pavarotti!
We meet again and follow traditional American menu, but 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 American way.
Over twenty years ago, they were waiting 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 Santa being so smart and rather big at his waist could not come up with any easier entry way?)
Learn more about Santa Claus and his connection with traditions of Netherlands.