In this 21st century land of plenty, we should remember that in the old days, poverty was more widespread. But even the poorest Polish families, in Poland and the U.S., managed to make the Christmas season a special time. If they could not afford to buy fancy decorations or the materials with which to make them, simple scraps of paper were fashioned into ribbons or ornaments. It may have meant weeks or months of scrimping and saving to afford special treats or gifts for the holiday, but somehow they did it.
In Poland, throughout the years of the partitions, as German and Russian traditions began to influence the seasonal celebration, often by planned design, the Poles clung to their own customs.
During the hellish years of the second world war, it was particularly difficult for the people of Poland to hold any holiday celebration. Not only was all of the country a virtual German or Soviet prison, millions of Poles were in labor or concentration camps or Siberian gulags.
The Nazis sought to replace Christian rites with their own rituals, and to remove Christ from Christmas celebrations, both in Germany and in conquered lands. In occupied Poland, there were instances where the Nazis prevented people from going out on Christmas Eve, and taking away those who had come together to celebrate the traditional Wigilia in their homes. The szopka (creche) competition in Kraków was banned. For those able to observe Wigilia, the customary empty place at the table for the beggar or Christ child took on a new meaning. It represented those persons in the family who were missing in the war, either imprisoned or their fates unknown.
For the Polish Christians incarcerated in the German camps, Christmas was of course particularly hard to celebrate. The cruelty of the SS knew no bounds. In some camps, the guards set up decorated Christmas trees outdoors and would place the bodies of dead prisoners beneath them.
There have survived accounts of inmates of all nationalities, including Poles, singing Christmas carols in their native tongues in the prison barracks, and of small evergreens or branches being smuggled in to lift spirits. Remarkably, there are stories of a package of opłatek getting through to Polish prisoners in Auschwitz, of a priest being allowed to celebrate a midnight mass in a barracks, and of women allowed to make toys from scraps for sick children in the camp.
In the Siberian Soviet labor gulags, Wigilia celebrations were held despite the contempt of the Russian commandants. Pieces of bread were used for opłatek, evergreen branches from the frozen forests decorated the wooden barracks, and the Polish detainees tried their best to look neat and clean that night despite the rags they wore.
During the Stalinist Cold War years, Poles refused to give up their traditions. Despite constant harassment, religious ceremonies were observed. The communists attacked Polish Christmas customs and tried to emphasize New Year's Day as the season's main event, and introduced Grandfather Frost or Father Winter as atheist figures to replace the Christ child.
Americans of all backgrounds have largely abandoned their traditional ethnic Christmas celebrations, especially those further removed from their immigrant ancestors. Our forebears struggled to preserve our Christmas traditions in America, as did the citizens of our fatherland. Now that we of Polish blood are free and capable of keeping alive those customs, will we? Or will even Poland lose its authentic Christmas to a plastic, generic "winter holiday," as it integrates into the European community?
If we don't follow the old traditions a hundred percent, won't we make an effort to observe at least a couple of them? It's only up to us. We owe it to our Polish heritage and in remembrance of those who suffered so much to keep them.