A Polish Christmas in Review – by Justyna

18 Dec

It is meant to be winter here. Plummeting minus temperatures, woolen mittens, snowmen in peoples’ gardens, white goodness all around. It is meant to be Christmas time. But in reality it is sloshy at its best. We are being completely ripped off on the winter front. Kazek is not even wearing thermals under his pants. Talking +2 to +8 degrees. Atrocious. Good news is that we are saving a heap on the heating bill. The bad news is that because temps haven not reached freezing, there is plenty of ‘sickness’ in the air with the bacteria just refusing to die. Meaning, people are constantly fluey or drippy or both.

Christmas in nonetheless upon us. And this being my sixth Christmas in Poland, I thought it best to do a mini review of the Polish Yuletide festivities. I guess the general vibe in a nutshell is family and food. Bit of Christ-is-born thrown in there for legitimising purposes, but overall it is all about family and food. And cleaning. Polish women kind of go mental on the cleaning front. They actually have the strength and willpower to do complete spring-cleaning type efforts in the middle of harsh atmospheric conditions. We are talking washing of the windows. Ah yes. A very close friend of mine recently caught a cold washing her windows despite wearing a winter get-up of beanie, gloves and scarf. That is commitment for you. My mum the other day enquired whether I had washed mine. She caught herself mid sentence and exclaimed, I guess you’re eight months pregnant so you have an excuse not to. Well phew. And here I was thinking I would be expected to pull the ladder from out the basement. Kitchen cupboards get done-over with every jam jar and pasta container removed so that shelves could be wiped. All toiletries in bathrooms are also removed and bathroom cupboards cleaned. I know of instances where jars of creams and hair spray bottles are also wiped down. Curtains are washed and ironed, dust is removed from lamp shades. Basically entire homes get made-over. A friend runs a local gym for women. It is usually open from early morning hours until very late at night. She has been forced by the crazy cleaning women of the area to reduce the opening hours by about a half in the two weeks before Christmas. Most of her clientele had informed her that what with Christmas cleaning, going to the gym will simply be put on hold.

Once you have cleaned for a week you then start on the cooking and the shopping for all the cooking…

Although the giving of presents during Christmas is part of the tradition and always has been, it does not carry as much attention as it does in Oz. People in general don’t talk about Christmas shopping. They don’t go all out with efforts of what to get their loved ones. There are no massive Christmas shopping rushes in malls like those of the ones I knew back in Sydney. There really is no late-night Christmas presents shopping culture. And no one, no one, buys gifts outside the month of December. This chilled approach suits my anti-shopping ways just fine. But what the Poles do go crazy over is the food shopping. Think Tesco meltdown in the fish section. Bombardment of baking aisles with almonds, poppy seeds and baking powder being bought by the tones. Meats accumulated in such proportions that if Poland experienced a nuclear disaster, its citizens would be set with protein for about fifteen months. What you do not do, what you must never do, is leave your Christmas food shopping until the last minute. You will be entering hell if you do. Instead you do like the wise older-generation local housewives do (who lived most of the their lives without massive supermarkets at hand), you purchase in small doses throughout the week. Bring some herring in on Monday. Some flour and sugar on the Tuesday. Sauerkraut and dried wild mushrooms on the Wednesday. Everyone knows that the last thing you purchase is a carp. Usually still alive. You tend to buy it the day before Christmas Eve. And if you happen to be out of yeast or sour cream, then you send the kid or the husband to the local shop to avoid culinary disasters.

And then the cooking begins. There are twelve dishes on the Christmas Eve table and the deal is you are meant to try a little bit (or a lot) of each one. Again the women go into over-drive. Into hellish cooking frenzy. To the point that they are completely exhausted by the time the great feast begins (which is around 4pm at the ‘light of the first star’) and often do not make it to Midnight Mass. Christmas Eve is the big night of celebrations. It is a pescatarian delight with various fish and traditional dishes set on the table. Presents are also given on this night and if you want to go strictly by the book, the Christmas tree is dressed during the morning of the 24th. You sing carols (well we do), men wear suits and ties, women pretty dresses. The head of the family ‘breaks bread’ in the form of a communion wafer (‘host’) and everyone individually wishes other members of the family health, prosperity and other personal wishes. It is a pretty special moment whereby ten, thirteen or so people, before sitting down to the great feast, stands around the living room wishing one another best of things for the new year to come. If the family is churchly the grandparent might read a bit from the bible. Then you sit and eat. And you eat and drink (no alcohol, no meat) slowly but surely until midnight, when the fam puts on their woolies and hits the Midnight Mass. You then come back (if you are lucky you will be trudging through the snow), to the feast table and that is when the grog and cakes come out. Jesus has officially been born, so you can now indulge in the more sinful aspects of life – alcohol and sugar.

Christmas Day is much of the same but more low key. Red meat comes out, ties come off, families are relaxed, the women fuss less around the table. It’s also a time when you visit closer friends and distant family members. Basically your gut continues to be full, you refuse to take another morsel, but when the pork loin with the prunes is wheeled out, you just can’t bloody help yourself. Advent is officially over.

The tree is up until around the 6th of January (The Day of Epiphany). And then the Carnival begins.

 We are having Christmas at our place this year. Being close to popping I didn’t really fancy driving for ages across Poland and running into the possibility of giving birth in a forest somewhere. So my parents are coming and so is Natalia, my cousin from Sydney. It will be the first time in my life where I will be playing, along with Michal, Christmas host. How very grown up. I am in a sentimental trap though, wishing also to be in Oz during this time. The warmth would abound, the Eve would be balmy, the prawns would be chilling and the herring salad would only serve as a reminder of the ‘motherland’. Living here and experiencing a totally Polish Christmas every year I have grown to love all the more and miss the Australian version we made for ourselves with the aunts, uncles and cousins, way back when.

 Happy Christmas everyone!


3 Responses to “A Polish Christmas in Review – by Justyna”

  1. Karen December 19, 2011 at 12:12 am #

    That was really good readin’. So have you been cooking all those dishes in your about to pop state?

    What does carp taste like, anyway?

    • Justyna December 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

      No plan to do 12 dishes. But my mum might have different ideas. As for carp, I refuse to eat the swimming rat. I have been scarred for life after Australia’s approach to the damn thing. Even though it is a native fish here, I can’t get past the mud smell.

  2. Beth December 21, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

    Loved reading that Justyna! I felt like I was there.

    Don’t romanticise Sydney Christmas too much – it has been raining almost relentlessly since October and the heat hasn’t hit at all, so it’s a gumboot Christmas! Kids around Sydney (and their parents) are going MENTAL!!!

    Merry Christmas!

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