Wesołych Świąt (Merry Christmas)
Polish immigrants celebrated Christmas much differently than we do today. Some customs remain: sharing Opaltek, Wigilia, perhaps in some areas Midnight Mass may still be available.
Opaltek is often referred to in America as the “Christmas wafer”–it is a custom to share this wafer on Christmas Eve with family and friends who attend dinner. The wafer is shared, starting with the head of the family, each breaking off a piece, and all bless each other with a wish of peace and a reminder of their love for each other. This remembrance or tradition is also carried on to household animals and pets, with a special red or pink wafer reserved for them. This custom occurs in Poland in conjunction with Wigilia; however, today, few Poles observe the Wigilia in the United States although recent immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s maintained this custom.
Wigilia, or the vigil, is the meal and watch for the first star on Christmas Eve. The homemaker will prepare 12 courses for the evening meal, to be eaten after the the first star is observed. These courses are all vegetarian, fish, and simple sweet deserts. The table and serving areas are prepared with a layer of straw under the table linens to remind all that the child Jesus was born in a lowly manger with only straw to protect him. As part of the dinner, the sharing of opaltek occurs. After the vigil meal, the family often attends Midnight Mass or will attend an early daybreak Mass the next day.
Gifts were not really part of the equation for Catholic Poles at this time. Perhaps families who did participate in gift giving did so on the Feast of St. Nicholas (on December 5), where children’s shoes or stockings were filled with small gifts of fruit or sweets. Christmas Day at this time was a day of rest and visits with family.
While spending the day with family, Poles would play simple games or read. The Ameryka w Toledo i Kuryer Clevelandski published a wonderful history of Bethlehem on 24 December 1892, and would likely have been the type of reading that the family would have done at this time. I’ve translated the history here. If you would like to read the original story as it was printed in Polish, you can find it on Chronicling America.
With the last issue before Christmas, we send our readers our best wishes for a Merry Christmas. We wish our enemies, on this occasion, repentance.
Birthplace of Jesus Christ.
On the occasion of Christmas, celebrated by the entire Catholic Church, it will not be out of place if we give here a description of the place where Jesus Christ was born years ago, before 1892. This place is Bethlehem. The name of the city comes from the Hebrew Bethlehem, which in Polish means: house of bread. Formerly it was called Efratah1 , which means fruitfulness. It lies in the tribe of Judah by 7.5 km. from Jerusalem. Although many important events in biblical history are associated with this city such as the death and grave of Rachel2, the abode of Boaz and Ruth, the birthplace of David, the most important is that Jesus Christ was born here, according to oral tradition, in a grotto over which stands the Church of the Virgin Mary, erected in 320 by Emperor Constantine and Helen, his mother. That it was mainly in this that Christ came into the world is beyond doubt; for this is what the earliest ecclesiastical writers and church fathers hold, St. Justin the Martyr, born around the year 100, in Sichem3 who saw this place with his own eyes; and finally even Celsus4 himself, about the year 150, also mentions this cave; and since it was and is the only one in Bethlehem, these testimonies cannot be related to any other. Besides, from time immemorial, this grotto was held by the Christians in their greatest veneration, which the Emperor Hadrian, in the year 131, had the temple of Adonis erected above it, wishing to prevent it, but in this way he actually only placed a visible sign on the spot where the Empress Helena later erected the aforementioned Christian church.
This church, located a short distance from the saints, on the shore of the mountain, has the shape of a Latin cross, all four arms of which end in convex semicircles. In the net, without the vestibule, it is 67 1/3 meters long, 23 1/3 wide and divided into five naves by four rows of marble Corinthian columns, twelve in each. This temple is very splendid, the only thing striking about it is the lack of a vault, and the most imposing part is damaged by a simple and clumsy wall separating the leg of the cross from its arms. They were erected to prevent profanation, for formerly the traveling Turks and Arabs stopped here for rest. Behind this enclosure you can see two arms and the head of the cross, which all make up the presbytery, there are four altars, three of which are titled: “Nativity,” “Three Kings” and “Circumcision.” Beneath the presbytery lies the grotto of the Nativity, to which there are two entrances on either side of the great altar, of which the left belongs to the Catholics, and the right to the Greeks and Armenians. After six steps of veneer, one comes to a door of gray marble, and then descends a narrow corridor of nine steps to the very grotto, which is 17 paces long, 5 paces wide, and 4 cubits high; in it, opposite the left entrance, there is another small cave called Zlobu, and under the great altar, on the eastern side, this cave ends with a rounded doorframe believed to be the place of Christ’s counsel.
Inside, on the sides of this doorframe, there are two columns on which rests a marble board constituting the mense of the altar. At the very bottom, between these columns, there is a jasper floor, and on it a silver star with 14 rays, formerly decorated with precious stones, of which only the fittings remain. In the center of this star there is a silver circle with the words: “Hic de Virgine Mariae Jesus Christus natus est.5” ( In Polish: Tu z dziewicy Maryi nardozil sie Jezus Chrystus).
The above-mentioned Grotto of Manger lies five paces from the Grotto of Nativity and is completely open; it is accessed by three steps, and its whole space is only 5 square steps. However, there is no real gorge here: in the 7th century it was cut out of the wall and transported to Rome, to the Church of Maria Maggiore, and a white marble of this shape and size was placed in its place. Above it is a beautiful painting of Baby Jesus lying in a manger during the adoration of the shepherds, painted by Jakob Palma. Right next to the gorge there is a lava hewn from the rock, on which, according to legend, the Maiden sat and watched over her child. In this brook there is an altar of the Three Kings, who, according to tradition, placed their gifts here. On the skew there is a star painted, from which a constantly burning lamp is shining. The walls of both caves and the trunks have only been left in their natural state, but they are covered with rich tapestries.
From this vault, supported by three columns, hang 32 lamps of various beauty and value.
The city of Bethlehem has gone through various vicissitudes. Rehoboam6 fortified it. In 1110, Pope Paschal II established a bishopric here at the request of the Crusaders, which survived until the 14th century. Since then it has been subject to the raids of the Saracen7 tribes. Today the city is in ruins; some families live in caves. In 1848, it had 3,000 souls, today it has 5,000. In the vicinity to the east lie: 1) the ruins of a church built by Helena and a monastery of St. Paul; 2) a spring from which three soldiers, risking their own lives, brought David water; 3) the mill grotto, once the church of St. Nicholas; 4) Rachel’s grave.
1. Typically spelled in English as Ephrath or Ephratah, but I’ve kept the spelling as it was in the publication.
2. Rachel was a Biblical figure. She was the favorite of Jacob’s two wives and was the mother of Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
3. Also called Shechem, was a Canaanite and Israelite city, the first capital of the Kingdom of Israel.
4. Celsus was a 2nd century Greek philosopher who was the earliest known opponent of Christianity. He wrote the “True Word,” the earliest known criticism of Christianity.
5. Latin: Here is where Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.
6. Rehoboam was the last monarch of Israel and the first monarch of the kingdom of Judah. He was a son and successor to Solomon and a grandson of David.
7. The Saracen were Arabs or Turks who professed the religion of Islam or were members of Arab tribes living in the Sinai Peninsula.