Polish children from across the North West yesterday brought the sights, sounds and flavours of a traditional Polish Christmas to Derry’s Guildhall Square.
Organised by the pupils, parents and friends of Polish Abroad’s Saturday School, the Derry public got the chance to sample borscht, watch a traditional Nativity play, make decorations, sing Polish carols and learn of long held Polish Christmas customs.
A specially made paper chain made by the children was placed on Derry’s Christmas tree.
“We are very happy and honoured to have been asked by Derry’s Mayor Martin Reilly to organise this event,” Monika Zajac, the Saturday school’s coordinator told the ‘Sunday.’
Around 50 children from across the North West currently attend the Saturday school, held for three hours each week in Strathfoyle. Established in 2008, it provides kids from the North West’s Polish community the opportunity to learn Polish history, traditions and language. Monika said yesterday’s Christmas event gave the children the chance to share those traditions and customs with the wider Derry public - and for the children to get a gift from Santa.
She said Christmas has a special resonance for the Polish community and is a time primarily for family. Santa visits on December 6 - St Nicholas Day - leaving “small gifts like sweets” by their beds, she said. The main celebrations take place on December 24.
“At home we do not put a lot of decorations outside, and we decorate our tree on the morning of the 24th,” Monika said.
Throughout December, parents and children will have spent time together making the decorations that will adorn the Christmas tree. More are made for family and friends. Tree decorated, thoughts turn to the meal that follows on the evening of the 24th - served only when the first star is spotted in the night sky and when the family have shared the Christmas wafer - optalek - the same used in Holy Communion.
“When we share this we share good wishes with each other, then we can start dinner,” Monika said.
“We prepare 12 meals on the Christmas table to signify the 12 apostles, and there are only dishes like fish and salads - we do not serve meat on December 24. The most popular traditional dish is carp, and it can be prepared in many different ways depending on what part of Poland you come from. It is the same with herring, again it is prepared in many ways, and there are many salads.
“The other traditional dish is borscht, a soup made from beetroot, served hot and with wee dumplings. These can have a variety of fillings, like cheese and potatoes, mushrooms and fried onions. Kutia can also be served, it’s a mix of pressed wheat and poppy seeds and dried nuts, it’s very sweet, cheese cakes are also part of the feast.”
All of this is served on a table with a little piece of hay stowed away under the table cloth.
“It is done to remind us of the birth of Jesus in the stable and we always set an extra place at the table - it says that everyone is always welcome and that no one should be without family at Christmas,” Monika said.
Some traditions however are slowly losing their importance it would seem. At one time it was common for the eldest member of the family to read a passage from scripture before the meal began, while in more rural parts of Poland it was not uncommon for farm animals to also share the Christmas wafer.
“There is an old custom in some parts that the animals will be able to speak with a human voice when it passes midnight,” Monika added.
Presents and Christmas wishes are exchanged as the meal comes to a close, before families attend Midnight Mass. December 25 is a time for visiting family and friends.
You can get more information on the school and the work of Polish Abroad online at www.polishabroad.co.uk