Southeast Michigan a bastion for Polish Christmas traditions, rituals

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dan Meloy, The Michigan Catholic

By Dan Meloy

Mich. (CNS) — Holiday traditions and rituals are a vital part of each family’s
Christmas celebration.

celebrating the birth of Jesus, many Catholic families have their own customs
passed down for centuries through the generations, and this is especially true
for southeast Michigan’s Polish families.

Christmas traditions center on the “Wigilia,” a family dinner in
which the whole family gathers on Christmas Eve to enjoy a meal and time
together before going to midnight Mass.

“The Wigilia is the main meal at Christmas Eve with the family,” said Father
Miroslaw Frankowski, a priest of the Society of Christ, who is pastor of the
predominantly Polish St. Florian Parish in the city of Hamtramck, which is an
enclave of Detroit.

is always an extra set of silverware in case there is an unexpected guest.
Jesus comes to us as the unexpected guest, so the tradition is to be prepared
to invite them.”

The Wigilia
features 12 meatless dishes, in remembrance of the 12 apostles, and the meals
are meatless because animals are given the “night off,” since they
were there for the birth of Christ, Father Frankowski told The Michigan
Catholic, Detroit’s archdiocesan newspaper.

meal centers on “Oplatki,” wafers made from flour and water —
similar to Communion wafers — which families pass around the table, taking off
a piece and eating it while saying well wishes for the coming year.

from all over the country visit the Polish Art Center in Hamtramck during the
Christmas season to buy Oplatki wafers and other items necessary
for a proper Polish Christmas, said Joan Bittner, the center’s co-owner.

make straw ornaments for the Wigilia,” Bittner said. “The straw is
meant to remind you of your ancestry and the spirit of all your ancestors who
are with you for Christmas. We also sell hay from the national forest in
Poland; the hay is intended to remind you of the manger and humble origins of
the Christ.”

Christmas Eve, the family gathers together to decorate the Christmas tree and
cook the food in preparation for the Wigilia. Before the meal starts, the
youngest member of the family stands outside, waiting for the first star of the
night to appear — signifying Christmas Eve is here and the meal can start.

Polish families, every aspect of the tradition is rooted in the love of family
and the birth of Christ, said Rodney Srodek, owner of Srodek’s Campau Quality
Sausage Co. in Hamtramck.

entire family is at the dinner, usually it’s three generations,” Srodek
said. “In Polish culture, everything is rooted in generations and meals
are prepared together. The children watch so one day they can learn how to cook
the meals. It’s the tradition of bringing everyone together to take part in all
aspects of the meal.”

sells popular Polish items for the Wigilia, including red soup called “barszcz”
with mushrooms, “uszka,” which are small dumplings resembling a
smaller version of pierogi, and kraut with mushrooms. Freshwater carp is the
traditional Polish fish, which Srodek said is the source of a unique tradition
in Polish culture.

idea is you buy the fish live, and when you kill it, you take a scale and keep
it in your wallet as good luck charm. It’s not exactly a Catholic tradition,
but it’s a Polish custom,” Srodek said.

the Wigilia, the family attends midnight Mass in celebration of Christmas.
After Mass, families usually go to bed, and then celebrate Christmas Day meal in
a traditional American sense.

Christmas Day, a lot of people also go to church during the day,” Father
Frankowski said. “Then we have a big meal with meat, making it a great
celebration where we invite neighbors and relatives to come into the house.

dress in all kinds of costumes in the evening, singing carols or acting out the
Nativity scene. The celebrations continue past Dec. 25, and through the whole
Christmas season, until the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.”

Polish Christmas tradition include “Szopki,” Nativity scenes and
churches made out of foil, paper and candy wrappers.

family has its own traditions when it comes to Christmas, each with their own

metro Detroit, Polish-American families celebrate with multiple generations
around the dinner table, carrying out the same traditions passed down to them
from their ancestors centuries ago.

the Polish came over, many were forced to assimilate into American culture,”
said Magdalena Srodek, Rodney’s sister who works in the Hamtramck shop. “The
biggest thing is the loss of language — it’s why you see people who are older
start taking Polish classes; you get a sense of nostalgia for that lost sense
of culture and history.

loss of language may happen, but people will never abandon their food. It’s
been passed down for generations, and it’s not going away, no matter where
people may live.”

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writes for The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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