Polish and American Christmas do not overlap in their timing. We do not celebrate Thanksgiving in Poland, so there is not any special day, such as the day after Thanksgiving, that marks the beginning of the Christmas season as in America. Poles do not really start celebrating Christmas until Christmas Eve, but then the Christmas season in Poland finishes much later than in America. The Christmas season in Poland starts with the end of Advent (Christmas Eve) and finishes with Candlemas on February 2.
During Advent which precedes Christmas Catholics, who are the majority in Polish society, are supposed to abstain from dancing and frolicsome partying. However, there are at least two important namesdays (birthdays of patron saints) that often occur during the advent season: St. Andrew's, on October 30, also known as a day of magic, and St. Barbara's, the patron saint of miners, on December 4. Miners' Day was always celebrated with big balls, which was applauded of course by the communist administration, since coal miners were considered the heart of the proletariat and were given special benefits. Still, many miners remained very religious in spite of the pressure to secularize them.
There is also another distraction during Advent that is especially popular with children: St. Nicolaus (Santa Claus) Day. St. Nicolaus visits children on the evening and through the night of his namesday, December 6. In some regions of Poland, children receive presents only on St. Nicolaus Day, while in other regions gifts are given twice, on December 6 and also on Christmas eve.
In the region of Great Poland (Wielkopolska, Poznan) the Starman (a man with a star: "gwiazdor" in Polish), gives the gifts to the children, not St. Nicolaus. The Starman is not as jovial and kind as St. Nicolaus: he first threatens the children with a beating with a wooden birch (the Polish equivalent of cane), but later he opens a sack with presents. The tradition of the starman is very old indeed, even older than the tradition of Santa Claus. It probably came to Poland from Germany through the so-called Weihnachtsmann, which could have been secularized from St. Joseph.
The ceremony of gift giving is quite complex, since Santa Claus (usually) gives presents approximately three weeks before Christmas somebody else is responsible for gifts during Christmas Eve. In the region of Little Poland (Malopolska, Krakow) and in Silesia it is the baby Jesus or his messenger, a small angel, that brings presents to children on Christmas eve. Baby Jesus and the small angel are invisible, but their presence is signaled by the ringing of a bell. The children are supposed to remain silent during Christmas eve dinner so that the gift givers would not be afraid to enter the house.
The Christmas tree is usually brought to the house just a couple of days before Christmas and since the adults are busy with work and Christmas shopping, children are commanded to help with the Christmas tree decorations. I remember how much fun it was to construct the longest possible chain from the colorful sticking papers or prepare some other decorations, since you could not buy everything in the stores. Christmas trees are illuminated in the evenings all through the Christmas season, until the end of January.
Poles love singing Christmas carols. In no other season during the year do people remain at church services until the very end or sing songs with more enthusiasm and from the depth of their hearts and throats than during the Christmas season. Some of the popular Polish Christmas carols are known internationally, for instance " W zlobie lezy" which is commonly known in English as "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly". I firmly believe that carol singing was one of the reasons why the Christmas season in Poland was extended to the beginning of February, whereas in the majority of other Catholic countries it finishes with the feast of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on January 6.
Wishing you all Merry Christmas or Wiele Dobrego na Swieta Bozego Narodzenia
Extensive selection of Polish carols is at: http://culture.polishsite.us/articles/art125.html
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