Being it's our second Christmas in Poland, we have been trying to learn about Polish traditions around the holidays. Christmas Eve is called "Wegilia" (ve-ghi-li-a) and its a busy day for Poles. Wegilia is a big shopping day, probably similar to the day after Thanksgiving for us in the States. It's not uncommon for Polish people to set up their Christmas trees on this day either. So you can imagine some of the strange looks we got when we put up our tree the end of November. Though Poles set up their trees quite late, they will leave it up for weeks after Christmas. On the evening of Wegilia is an elaborate feast at which all the extended family gets together. No matter how many people sit at the table there will always be one extra plate and chair at the table. Though mostly symbolic, the extra plate is set just in case a stranger comes to the door in need of food and shelter. Twelve courses are served, the number twelve symbolizing the twelve apostles. Something else that is common is the placing of hay either underneath the tablecloth or underneath the table, symbolizing the place of Christ's birth.
The main course on Christmas Eve is always carp. It's rarely eaten the rest of the year, but always eaten on Wegilia. However we haven't met too many who really care for it but it's tradition--kind of like the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving right? The grocery stores in town have huge five feet tubs in which they keep the live carp, and it's rather amusing to watch as people try to grab them with the net. To keep the carp fresh Polish people will let them live in their bathtub until Christmas Eve.
Through our language study and through talking with some Polish friends we have begun to learn about the importance of "wishes" in Polish culture. "Wyszystkiego najlepszego" is a common phrase heard around the holidays and it means "I wish you the best in everything." This wishing culminates on Wegilia when after dinner the family brake off pieces of a specially made bread called "oplatek" (o-pwa-tek) and wish good things for eachother over and over again. Sharing in "oplatek" can also be a time of forgiveness or of letting "bygones be bygones" like we Americans do on New Year's Eve. Christmas morning is more of a time for immediate family and for opening presents, but Poles often travel to the homes of extended family later in the day. Ginger and I want to thank you for your continued prayers we wish each of you "wyszstkiego najlepszego."