Poland Dispatch: Christmas In Poland

The Polish countryside with a dusting of snow makes a remarkable Christmas landscape. The snow was exquisitely timed so that it got the coming down part taken care of two days ago. Everything was in place just in time for the holiday. The day before Christmas the skies were clear, the sun was out, and everywhere I looked – except where I saw a dead dog – resembled a lovely Holiday card.
I’m not sure what killed the neighbor’s little dog, but something tells me it was my wife’s family’s emotionally scarred, Cujo-dwarfing wolf/dog from the Caucasus. Rocky (ro-kee) sleeps just fine in sub-zero weather, howls like the part wolf he is and comes across as terribly menacing. Rocky handles the 11pm – 8am security shift on the farm. Something tells me he might have been the one that dispatched the neighbor’s dog when it chose to visit the premises without permission. There didn’t look to be much of a struggle. If I didn’t know there was a canine berserker on premises I might even have believed that the poor doggie died of natural causes.
I have been told that Rocky knows not to kill me. I think my wife’s family is hoping he’s noticed I’m not an intruder. There seems to be no guarantee however and I am still under strict orders not to leave the house when Rocky has been released. I plan on taking their advice. The other night while walking past the kitchen window I couldn’t help but notice the wolf/dog staring at me just outside, fangs bared and emitting a low, pants-wetting growl.
Oddly, when off duty and in his cage he cowers in fear. Apparently he was abused by his previous owners. This is very sad and it’s probably what made him a good security dog that kills intruders and threatens Americans on the premises. I bought him a plastic squeaking pig and a dog biscuit as a token of international friendship but that doesn’t seem to have won him over. Then again, he hasn’t killed me, so maybe it did. The silence of a winter night in rural Poland is occasionally pierced by the high-pitched squeal of the plastic pig. This is reassuring because it means Rocky is still outside, and possibly likes my gift enough to consider not attacking me.
Christmas in the Polish countryside seems a very hectic affair. The big deal is Christmas Eve, as Christmas Day is just a day to sleep in and relax. The events begin on the 23rd with a frantic housecleaning and acquisition of food from the various stores in the village. The 24th is the busiest day, with tradition dictating that women run the kitchen while the men muck about and fiddle with things.
What was most surprising to me is that the Christmas tree doesn’t go up until Christmas Eve. This is unusual to an American because Christmas in the States begins on November 1st when stores pack the last of the Halloween decorations away and haul out the Yuletide cheer in an effort to maximize store sales. Thanksgiving is a mere hiccup on the way to Christmas.
Two Christmas trees were delivered to the premises by an elderly farmer of some relation to the family. In the U.S. he’d long have been living in Florida. Things are different here though, and despite his age he spent the better part of two days out in the frozen woods hacking down pines after paying the land owner a few dollars. Cheap Christmas trees are one of the upsides of life in rural Poland. One of the downsides is when you’re 85 you might still be out swinging axes at them.
As the women prepared Christmas dinner, my brother-in-law and I looked for a place to plant the second Christmas tree outside. I thought it odd that we were planting a tree that had been chopped down but it was too bitterly cold to stop and cherish irony. We hacked a hole in the frozen ground with a pick, dropped the tree in and hung lights on it. All under the watchful, caged eye of Rocky the potentially murderous wolf/dog.
Last year when we arrived for Christmas I went to the bathroom and discovered a large fish swimming in the bathtub. Never having seen a large fish in someone’s bathtub before, I naively assumed they must have rescued it from a very cold pond. I remember thinking how sweet it was of them to help out a fish in severe weather. I later learned that it was a carp, and it was slated for termination and consumption as part of Christmas Eve dinner. Every time I went into the bathroom I was guilt-ridden and played with it. To the family’s amusement I started referring to the carp as ‘my friend.’ A couple of days later, one of the big Polish soap operas featured a retarded boy playing with a carp in a bathtub, wondering aloud why ‘his friend’ had to die. Art imitating life I guess. This year the carp was conspicuously absent, presumably because of my obvious emotional attachment to them. Leave it to the American to show up and start changing centuries of tradition.
On the 24th you’re not allowed to eat or drink alcohol. This is too bad. I was hungry and felt I deserved a beer for the effort involved in planting the Christmas tree. Tradition decrees there will be no food until the first star is visible in the sky; no drink until after midnight. Why it’s okay to drink on Christmas Day I’m not sure. I assume the rules are there to make sure folks show up at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Radio is the usual jumble. In the space of an hour you can cover a dozen genres. Whitney Houston segues into Polish Folk which segues into Bon Jovi. Most music is Christmas-themed. If it’s in English or Polish and about Christmas, it’s on rotation. I heard Silent Night by more artists than I can remember, in both languages. How they managed to translate the lyrics of Silent Night and keep the melody is pretty impressive, seeing as Polish words tend to be three feet long and stuffed with consonants. The cheerful holiday songs were briefly interrupted by an inappropriate Phil Collins ballad about children starving and dying in the streets because of evil politicians, but that gave way to another rendition of Silent Night and all was well again.
Christmas dinner starts with everyone taking a wafer. It may be a religious type of wafer, like a Body of Christ type thing. That would certainly make sense, but I’m not really privy to Catholic traditions. You go around to each person in the room, take a piece of their wafer and eat it. Then you say nice things to them and offer wishes for the upcoming year. In the wishes directed at me I understood a lot of yh’baby’, ‘next year’ and ‘please’ so if I’m not mistaken, the pressure is on. After the wishes comes the traditional left-right-left cheek kissing, then you’re off to eat someone else’s wafer, and so on. I thought it would be nice to include the bird in the festivities but apparently these wafers are off limits to the winged.
Dinner is a sumptuous affair with a required 12 dishes – no more, no less, no meat. In addition to the traditional Polish fare of mushroom and cabbage pierogi, breaded fish and assorted salads, my wife introduced her family to nontraditional dishes she picked up in New York from her addiction to the Williams Sonoma website. Some changes had to be made – fresh salmon was nowhere to be found – but the Poland debut of shrimp cakes, halibut with avocado/mango chutney and hearty cream of mushroom soup went swimmingly. It all went down great with a hot mug of borscht though I really would have loved a beer.
Presents are exchanged after dinner. My love for Polish beer glasses was again indulged and now I have to figure out how to get the four Okocim glasses back to the U.S. in one piece. I was relieved to learn that the wine rack and eight wine glasses I received were intended to remain here.
Apparently the Santa aspect is different here since gifts are exchanged in the evening when children are still awake and waiting by the tree. Santa’s arrival and gift-leaving is logistically complicated and requires coordinated child deception/distraction, stealth and a decent Santa costume.
After presents, coffee and a variety of cakes are enjoyed. Cakes are very big in Poland, and they’re all quite delicious.
Close to midnight, we donned our warm apparel and headed for the village church. It’s not a long walk, but it felt longer with the combination of bitter cold and strong winds. The church is gorgeous, 600 or so years old, a half-timbered affair that was recently renovated so it looks as brand new as a 600-year old building can look. It was the church we were married in, so it’s very sentimental. It was also very full by the time we arrived, and even though it is completely unheated we would have preferred to be on the inside of it rather than standing outside in the freezing winds. Church sells out on Christmas Eve, standing room only, be warned. After 15 or so minutes of straining to hear the priest over the winds and chatter outside, the family decided to call it a night and we trudged back to the house.
There was more eating to be done, pierogi and such with a mug of hot borscht which was a delight after having been freezing for the last half hour. There was some horrid movie on. It was an American film with one of the people from Beverly Hills 90210. It was dubbed in Polish though and all I could really discern was that they were on a big, scary cruise ship.
With all its tradition and Norman Rockwell ambiance I understand why my wife considers Christmas in Poland the most important holiday of the year.
One by one, they started fading and excusing themselves to bed. Rocky was released from confinement and I was again warned not to exit the house under any circumstances, just in case the wolf/dog decided to try and spoil an otherwise lovely Christmas.