A Tale of Two Christmases

(Warsaw Insider, Dec 2010)

A look at the celebrations of Catholic and Orthodox Christmases in Poland.

Santa popping by with gifts twice a year is every kid’s dream. And that dream does come true for children from families of “mixed marriages” where one partner is Catholic and the other, Orthodox Christian.

“It’s very nice for the kids,” says Father Henryk Paprocki, a theologian and the spokesman for the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church. His face lights up at the thought of the young ones getting a bonus round of presents.

In Poland, the first goodie bag arrives on 24th December for the Catholics. But in the Julian Calendar used by the Polish Orthodox Church, the nativity of Christ falls on 7th January of the New Calendar. Just when the Catholics are wrapping up the Christmas and New Year merrymaking, the Orthodox Christian (called “prawosławny”) community is warming up to celebrate Wigilia (Christmas Eve) on 6th January.

Orthodox Christianity in Poland

Most foreigners have the impression that Poland is 100% Catholic. And the average Pole living in Warsaw is blissfully unaware of how their Orthodox countrymen celebrate the birth of Christ.

Father Henryk hasn’t got the statistics on the exact headcount of the Orthodox believers in Warsaw. In the whole country, the figure stands at about half a million, with the majority residing in the Podlasie region in the north east of Poland. Onion-domed Orthodox churches (called “cerkiew”) of traditional and modern designs are frequent sightings in and around Białystok, the regional capital of Podlasie.

While Orthodox Christianity has always been a natural part of the landscape in the eastern borderlands, in Warsaw these churches were primarily constructed to serve the Russian occupiers before World War I. From about 20 Orthodox churches that existed in the capital, only two have survived. The one which most of us know is the Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Praga. The other is in the St. John Klimak in the Wola district.

Among those that didn’t make it was the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It stood on the square opposite the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (at that time, the structure was still part of a palace) in the Saxon Garden. The Cathedral did not perish in World War II, but it was demolished in 1926 by the Polish authorities since the public viewed it as a symbol of the interlopers.

However, those turbulent times are water under the bridge. According to Jerzy Lubach, a director and producer of historical and religious documentaries, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches live in harmony even though they go by different calendars. Further evidence of this peaceful alliance can be seen in eastern Poland, where it’s not unusual to find a Catholic cross standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an Orthodox three-bar cross.

The Night Before Christmas

The Catholic and Orthodox Wigilia are remarkably similar although the festivities are 13 days apart.

“It’s the same tradition,” reasons Father Henryk.

Jerzy echoes the identical rationale, saying, “At the roots [of the religions], there is no difference. It’s a symbolic date. The intention is to gather with other people and share the joy.”

“You see the first star [of the night], then after exchanging presents and prayers, everyone sits down to the Wigilia dinner,” adds Jerzy, explaining what sharing the joy means, be it on 24th December or 6th January.

In Catholic and Orthodox homes, you will find a Christmas tree. Set up on in a corner is the Nativity Scene, sometimes creatively crafted from gingerbread. For the table setting, sheaves of hay are placed under the tablecloth and an empty seat is put on standby for the unexpected guest.

The Wigilia dinner, if you stick to the rules, is a spread of 12 meat-free dishes. The Orthodox families go a step further by abstaining from dairy products as well.

12 dishes is a daunting task even for the most fervent cooks. But Amanda Krzyworzeka, a lecturer of cultural anthropology at Warsaw University, says that if we count everything, including desserts, nuts and sides, the number is quickly reached.

“In some regions of Poland, it’s 13. Or an odd number, from five to 11,” she adds. “We eat things that have symbolic meanings.”

The symbolic food comes from five elements. The meadow yields grains like kasza gryczana (buckwheat) and poppyseeds for the makowiec (poppyseed rolls). The garden produces cabbage and beetroot. From the water, the carp and herring dishes are the representatives. The forest is the source for nuts and the mushrooms in the obligatory pierogi stuffed with kapusta z grzybami (sauerkraut with mushrooms). And finally, the harvests from the orchard are converted into kompot (a drink made from dried apples, prunes and pears).

In Orthodox households, the spread is similar, but supplemented with garlic to symbolise health, salt for abundance, and honey for good luck.

Kutia (a sweet dish made from pasta pieces, poppyseeds and honey) is an Orthodox item that has found its way on to Catholic tables.

“Traditionally, you toss the kutia towards the ceiling,” says Mrs. Lubach (Jerzy’s mother). “The more kutia is stuck to the ceiling, the more luck you will have for the following year.”

The main difference you will spot at the Wigilia dinner is the communion wafer. Over prayers or well wishes, Catholic members share the paper-thin opłatek. The Orthodox equivalent is the prosphora, a leaven bread, which Father Henryk says is sold in shops and churches.

After the meal, the believers make their way to the church for the Midnight Mass. While the Catholic services are conducted in Polish, the Orthodox liturgies are in Old Slavonic.

Father Henryk notes that in order to cater to locals and the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian communities in Warsaw, the Orthodox churches in the capital perform the liturgies on both Christmas Eves.

The Practice

In the countryside closer to Poland’s eastern borders, “mixed marriage” families still observe the Catholic and Orthodox dates for the Nativity.

Ewa and Jacek are an example of such “mixed marriages”. Jacek, who grew up in Białystok, recalls a childhood when Father Christmas visited twice within two weeks. But now that he and Ewa have become parents and are living in Warsaw, they intend to celebrate Christmas by the Catholic timeline.

Jerzy is married to a Belarusian of Orthodox faith. In the Lubach household in the outskirts of Warsaw, Wigilia falls on 24th December.

“Who has the time to make the preparations twice?” he says, pointing out the high maintenance of two-timing.

Another challenge faced by the Orthodox believers is the 40-day fast before Nativity. Father Henryk admits that it is not easy to adhere to the fast when Catholic family members and friends around them have already started on the feasting.

Father Henryk doesn’t think the Polish Orthodox Church will formally align the celebration of Nativity to the New Calendar. The reason given is the clergy in Białystok is very traditional.

Somehow, we don’t think the kids would object to two deliveries of Christmas gifts in one year.

Warsaw Insider, Dec 2010