December in Polish Christian practice is the time of ADVENT. The Latin meaning of adventus is “coming” and it refers to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
In my childhood, the rough time of the Communist 70s/80s, it was indeed a time of intense, expectant waiting for the time of abundance, which back then – with empty shops – was not our daily reality. So I waited for the sweet smell of oranges punctured with cloves. Grandmas waited in long queues for delicacies. Raisins, nuts, cinnamon and poppy seeds waited in cupboards to be used in Christmas cookies. Fragrant spruce from the local forester waited to be transformed into a Christmas tree. Fish awaited in the bathtub to be sliced, breaded and fried (it was very common to buy carp even two weeks in advance and keep them alive until the last day!). Adults waited for the moment they could have a bath again. Those who played the piano waited for family Christmas carol concerts. Presents waited to be wrapped. We, children, waited (impatiently) for the presents left under the Christmas tree by the Baby Jesus. Dogs and cats waited to say something (the legend says that on Christmas Eve, the night full of miracles, animals can speak). The whole world waited for snow to celebrate a White Christmas. And on That Eve we waited for the First Star – the undeniable sign that the Big Wait is over!
On the evening of 24 December life in all Polish cities and villages slows down. Families gather at long tables covered with a white tablecloth with a handful of hay under it and an additional plate for the unexpected guest (with silent hope, that nobody will appear…) and share OPŁATEK, a small white wafer symbolising reconciliation and forgiveness, friendship and love. On the table mandatorily we serve: red borsht (beet soup) with small mushroom dumplings, carp, pierogi (cabbage filled dumplings), cabbage with peas, different poppy seed desserts. And, between the eager unwrapping of presents and PASTERKA –the midnight mass celebrated in all churches across Poland – yet a small chat with our German Shepherd.