Since I moved to the USA, I miss the atmosphere of Christmas in Poland. I am not trying to say that the traditions of Polish Christmas are any better than the American Christmas. It is just that my childhood memories of Christmas with my family are dearest to me and cannot be replaced.
Our Christmas was less commercialized than it is now, both, in Poland and in the USA. Christmas was more about "being" than about "having" or "possessing". It was also about its religious value. We had to protect Christmas' real name and meaning since the communists thought that religion threatened their ideology and power and tried to remove all religious associations of this feast. They used the terms: "family day" or "star day" for Christmas so that the word "Christmas" which in Polish means "God's Birth" (Boze Narodzenie) would not be mentioned in the official newspapers.
The other important value of Christmas besides religious was the family value. It was not a time to be alone or with parents and siblings only, but to be with all family members, grandparents, aunts, uncles and even cousins. I lived in Krakow, but I spent almost every Christmas with my grandparents, aunts and uncles in Katowice, Silesia, southwest Poland. My grandparents had a big house, garden and a tall Christmas tree year after year. I still remember one Christmas which we had to spend in Krakow, because somebody was sick. I was so disappointed because the Christmas tree was so small. Since the apartment where I lived with my brothers and parents was small, we could not even fit a tall Christmas tree there.
So Christmas was about meeting all the family and having good time. Therefore the tradition of sharing oplatek (blessed wafer) just before Christmas Eve supper is so important - people who kept grudges had to forget about it and forgive each other. The tradition of oplatek is so deeply rooted in our society that it is also common among coworkers at Polish companies just before Christmas.
The other important part of Christmas is its unusual food. Many dishes have such an old tradition that they are prepared and served only once a year, during Christmas Eve supper (if meatless) or Christmas Day. Each region has some characteristic dishes. For instance in Silesia we ate soup called "siemieniotka" which is prepared from hemp seed (siemie) with buckwheat groats (kasza gryczana). Hemp seeds used for this soup are hard to find anywhere outside Silesia and any other time except the Christmas season.
Some dishes, which we ate in Silesia are common all over Poland - like borscht with mushroom dumplings, poppy seed cake and of course carp. The carp for Poles during Christmas is like turkey for Americans during Thanksgiving dinner. Every region of Poland has its own recipes for the best carp - in Silesia we fried carp with butter and parsley and it was really delicious.
After Christmas supper we all gathered around the Christmas tree to open the gifts and sing Christmas carols. Yes, we did really sing them with a great joy! I wager not only my family had this habit, since the only time during the year when Poles sing in the church from the whole heart is during Christmas when we are finally allowed to sing carols after a long Advent season.
I wish you all Merry Christmas and also encourage implementing some of the old Polish traditions into your American Christmas, if you can. Maybe you can share any interesting customs or food recipes with us?
Extensive selection of Polish carols is at: http://culture.polishsite.us/articles/art125.html
Check Polish-American Carols at amazon
ATTENTION! Under this link you can buy it quite cheap and LISTEN to it!