As we have now a sizeable Polish community in Jersey, I thought it might be interesting to look at Christmas celebrated in Poland. This is from Whitnash Parish Magazine, in 1868, and what is interesting is how little the Christmas customs appear to have changed. Whitnash is a Parish in Leamington Spa, and I came across the magazines, bound, from a second hand bookshop that was closing down.
About a fortnight before, the priests prepare and bless certain white cakes as thin as wafers, and about six inches in diameter. These cakes they send to all the families of their, parishes, and there is not a dwelling, from the palace to the hovel, which does not receive one, making in return a suitable donation to the church in proportion to their means.
Christmas eve is still a day of fast, followed by feasting at the first star, with hay under the table, and the white cakes would appear to be the "Oplatek" described below from a modern description of Polish Christmases, although it doesn't appear that the clergy are now involved in the making of the bread.
The traditional Christmas dish in Poland is 'Oplatek', a piece of bread pressed with a holy picture on the surface. People carry it from house to house and share it with their family members, friends and immediate neighbors and wish them a Merry Christmas. Each person who shares the bread is supposed to forgive everything that may have hurt them in the past year, befriend the person once again and wish the person all the happiness in the coming year.
The unleavened wafers are baked from pure wheat flour and water, are usually rectangular in shape and very thin; they are identical in composition to a round wafer which become the Host after the Consecration during Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. Being only a reminder of the Body of Christ used in private homes, Oplatki lack sanctification by a priest or bishop.
The changeover from the priests preparing and distributing the bread (which is the case in 1868) seems to have come about when Poland lost its independence after the Second World War, although some bread is still taken to the priest to be blessed:
On Christmas Eve, the Poles have a beautiful custom that recalls the Eucharist: Oplatki ("oplatek" in the singular) -- very thin, crisp, large rectangular breads with the consistency of Communion wafers and impressed with religious designs -- are eaten on Christmas Eve (Wigilia) . They are laid at the center of the table this night, on a bed of straw. Just before supper, the father wishes all a holy Christmas and recalls those who've died during the year and brings to memory Christmas Eve suppers past. He takes an oplatek that's been blessed by a priest, and breaks off a piece to give to his wife. He places it in her mouth with a blessing such as, "May the Lord bless and keep you through this next year." The mother reciprocates and then hands a piece to the person next to her and blesses him. That person does the same to the one next to him, and so on, until all have received and given a piece.
So it does appear that some oplatek are blessed by priests, although they no longer appear to be involved in the baking of them, they are involved in the distribution, and it is still supporting church funds. As one writer says in 2009:
In Poland we buy "Oplatek" in our churches. It is accessible in shops too - but our tradition is to get it from church. Nobody is baking it in home
Anyway, here is Whitnash Parish Magazine, 1868 on a Polish Christmas:
Whitnash Parish Magazine 1868
The Christmas festival is one of those which the Polish clergy celebrate with extraordinary solemnity. About a fortnight before, the priests prepare and bless certain white cakes as thin as wafers, and about six inches in diameter. These cakes they send to all the families of their, parishes, and there is not a dwelling, from the palace to the hovel, which does not receive one, making in return a suitable donation to the church in proportion to their means.
Christmas eve is a strict fast-day throughout the country; but no sooner does the first star appear in the heavens (an event impatiently watched for) than the lucky person who is the first to see it has to has to tell the mistress of the -house; who then orders dinner to be served. A little hay has :previously been strewed under the table, in. order to remind the guests that Jesus was born in a-stable. Every one takes his seat, the master of the house at one end of the table and the mistress at the other ; the sacred cakes are brought in, the master and mistress each break off a bit and send the rest round the table, each guest in his turn breaking off a morsel.
A little after midnight the company go to their parish church, .where a solemn hymn announces the birth of the Saviour, and the words "Jesus is born"' are spoken aloud by all present.
In the country; the day is enlivened by parties of people wearing masks going in sledges, accompanied by fiddlers and singers, to surprise their friends. These parties are foolishly meant to represent the three Magi bringing offerings to the Lord. In towns, the poor go about with a box representing a stable and the infant Jesus, Joseph, the ox, and the ass; they sing rude carols, and get some coppers from the bystanders.
In Servia the head of the family goes into the woods on Christmas-eve about nightfall, cuts down a young oak tree, as straight an one as he can find, and brings it home, saying, "Good evening, and a merry Christmas !" The others reply, " God grant it you," and at the same time strew a few grains of corn on his head; the sapling is then laid on the hearth.
On the following day pistol-shots axe heard, and a visitor appears at the door, throws in a handful of corn, and cries, "Christ is born!" Those who have been hit reply, "He is indeed!" The visitor then approaches the fire, where the sapling is still glimmering, strikes it with the tongs, and exclaims, "So many sparks, so many oxen, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, and beehives!" After which the mistress of the house throws a veil over the visitor, and the remains of the oak tree are carried into the garden or orchard.
When dinner is announced, each of the guests approaches with a lighted taper in his hand; prayers are said, after which they all embrace each other, saying, "The peace of God be with you; Christ is truly born, we. adore Him!" Then, in order to represent the intimate union of the members of the family, the master of the house collects all the tapers, ties them in a bundle, and lays them on a dish containing various kinds of grain and a loaf of unleavened bread; which has had a: silver coin put into it while it was being kneaded. This loaf is then broken into pieces, each person takes one, and he to whose lot the silver coin has fallen is reckoned the luckiest member of the family during the year.
The hospitable board is open to all comers for three days, and. until New Year's-day the universal salutation is, "Christ is born ! He is truly born."
Whitnash Parish Magazine 1868
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