Christmas in Poland

I spent my Christmas in Poland, and of course I completely neglected to take any photos, so I’ll have to just share with you a picture of snow from the train, and hopefully my words can describe the food well enough for you to picture it.

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I met Agnieszka in November through a volunteer program called Angloville (a program I still have neglected to write about at this point) located in Poland. Agnieszka was one of the students in this very intensive five day program. Once the program ended we said our good-bye, but through social media we were able to stay in contact. This christmas was my first since my mom had died, and so it was a particularly hard one, or I anticipated it to be emotionally difficult. Agnieszka and her family invited me into her home, and I was treated so warmly, and had many kisses (the Polish kiss three times on the cheek as a hello). I barely thought about mom, until I got back to Prague, and then I cried (like I do almost everyday, but this is grief it makes you cry). It was a very nice Christmas and as a special treat it snowed on the 25th which is the day my mom and I used to celebrate.

I want to share a few things that I observed and in which I participated.

Poland is a Catholic country, and for them the most important day of Christmas is the 24th. The family gathers for an early supper, and afterwards presents are passed out, then they go to Mid-Night mass. On the 25th there is more eating with the family, and church, then the celebration continues on the 26th with more food and church. In Agnieszka’s family we also had a dinner on the 28th because some of the family was in Austria skiing on the 24th.

Agnieszka and her sister Anna (or Annya) emphasized to me with great enthusiasm (because I made them go through the entire three meals with me as I wrote it all down) that every family is different, and traditional food is based on the region and the family. So, with that in mind- this is the traditional Polish dishes from Angnieszka’s family in the Mazowsze region. Their home is about an hour and a half outside of Warsaw.

I took a bus from Prague to Warsaw, and I arrived on the 23rd. After a quiet meal and meeting Anna I went to bed.

The Food

December 24th

First we start with kisses! Okay, actually best wishes. Agnieszka’s mother passed around a tray of Christian wafers called Oplatek. I’m not Catholic or Polish so this was a very new experience for me. The wafer is thin and nearly transparent, it is white in color and has a bland flavor and tended to stick to the roof of my mouth. It is large like the size of a graham cracker, not round like the communion wafers I’ve seen in the movies, and the image of the Virgin Mary or the nativity scene is embossed onto the wafer. First everyone breaks a piece of the wafer off, and then goes to each person in the room to offer them a small piece of your wafer as they offer you a small piece of theirs. With the breaking of the wafer comes a wish for life, the new year, words of hope and love, then you kiss on the cheek (three times of course) and you hug. You do this before eating.

Traditional there are 12 dishes to eat, and there is no meat on the 24th. People tend to eat carp like they do in Czech Republic and in Slovakia. We didn’t have carp we had herring which I am told is a lot better tasting than carp. We also had less dishes because the family was smaller this year, and 12 dishes are a lot of food for a limited amount of people.

The first dish was a borsch (barszcz in Polish). This is a beet root soup with tiny dumplings called uszka which means ears. The uszka is a flour pastry stuffed with boiled mushrooms, and onions that were fried in butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The uszka is placed into the soup bowls first and then the hot beet root soup is poured over the dumplings. This was one of my favorite dishes. The combination of the hot sweet beet with the zing of the onions and mushrooms was delicious.

Next we had the fish. Szuba which is a traditional Russian dish, but they incorporated it into their own Christmas Eve dinner because it is a family favorite. This is a layered dish like a casserole and it is served cold. The first layer is potatoes that are boiled, finely cubed, then salted and peppered. The second layer are onions that have been sautéed in butter. The third layer is the herring. The fourth layer are eggs that have been boiled and chopped. The fifth layer is beets that have been boiled and chopped and the final layer is a thick slather of mayonnaise (yes mayonnaise). The dish must be prepared a day before serving because the flavors all need the time to marinate. The mayonnaise turns a bright pink, and I had absolutely no idea I was eating mayonnaise. I had really liked this dish too, much to my surprise, and before I knew about the mayonnaise. Herring is an interesting and slightly fatty tasting fish. The beets and eggs cut the fatty taste and it was savory with a sweet after taste.

The third dish were the pierogis. Pierogis are a very traditional Polish food, and these ones were specially made for Christmas. The dough is made from flour, salt and water. It is the same dough that is used for the uszka. The pierogis are stuffed with sour and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. They are then boiled, and served immediately after boiling.

The final dish for this meal was a noodle dish made with bow tie noodles. The sauce is made from cream and butter and honey then mixed with nuts and raisons, and poppy seeds. Poppyseeds are a must on Christmas. I don’t know the significance of the poppyseed for Christmas only that is has to be served. I didn’t like this dish. I have discovered that I don’t like pasta in a sweet sauce, and I’m not a huge poppyseed fan.

We ended dinner with kompot a hot drink made from smoked plumes, apples, and pears that are boiled into a hot tea and then mixed with sugar, honey and raisons. I really liked this tea. The smokiness was very strong and it had an earthy taste.

Dessert was a choice of poppyseed cake, fruitcake, or gingerbread cake covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate.

After dinner santa came to visit and gave some presents to the twins and to their baby brother.

December 25th

It snowed.

Breakfast was around 9:00. Supper was around 2:00. Meat is served.

Chicken noodles soup was the first course. I’ve had chicken noodle soup before, but it wasn’t the meal itself that was interesting to me, but how the meal is served. First the cooked noodles are placed into each individual bowl, then you add your own desired amount of dill, then lastly you pour the hot chicken broth over the noodles.

The meat was all cured and smoked by Agnieszka’s father. It was various preparations of pork and wild bore. There were also pickled mushroom, pickled peppers, pickle pumpkin, and pickled plums. The main dish was a roasted duck stuffed with apple dill stuffing. For the second and third day we ate much of the same food that was served on Christmas eve.

In the evening after dinner we had wine and Agnieszka’s parents and sister brought out their homemade liquors and we had a tasting. I’ll list the liquors in the order of my favorite to least.

Ginger-raspberry- This was spicy and sweet, but not too sweet that it was overly syrupy.
Current- sweet and tart
Quince- sweet and sour
Cherry- sweet
Raspberry and quince- sweet and mildly tart
Gooseberry
Ginger- spicy almost hot.
Mirabelka plum- this is made from a small white plume.
Then we had a smidgin of cognac

The 26th and dinner on the 28th was a repeat of many of the same dishes and desserts from the 24th, but the main dish was roasted pork medallions in a dark gravy served with rice.

Portions are served on small plates, as compared to the nearly gluttonous American tradition of piling everything all at once on a plate. Dinner is also much much earlier than it is in the U.S. There is a supper which is large with multiple dishes and served around 2:00 p.m., then there is a small dinner served around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. For dessert or snacks (after the ginger bread cake and coffee or tea) is usually some fruit.

My stomach was full and my heart was calm as I left Poland and took a long train ride back to Prague. I left behind a new friend, and a new family, and traditional dishes, but I was able to bring one small family tradition back to Prague with me. Every morning when I wake up I make myself a hot cup of honey water with lemon. And, just like they taught me, I place the honey in cold water the night before to dissolve and to maintain all of the healing and healthy properties.

Many thanks to my Polish family for a lovely Christmas.

My First Christmas without Mom

Christmas time has come to Prague. Not to be a grinch, but I’m a bit bah humbug about the whole affair. Christmas was a special time when I was a child. My mother would wake me early and start with a stocking, then it was time to open the presents. She loved Christmas. Occasionally, I would spend Christmas with my dad, and my grandparents. They switched off. I’m not sure how they came to the agreement of who-gets-the-kid-when, but I’m sure it broke my mom’s heart not to have me with her.

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The idea of “the family” was so important to her, so idyllic. She really wanted the white picket fence, the little house, the nuclear family, the perfect Ozzy and Harriet holidays. I imagine when she was a little girl living in the anger and depression that surrounded her and her big sister that she would watch those 50’s and 60’s television shows, and dream about how when she grew up she would have that kind of life. It didn’t work out. There was never a picket fence- not of any color. My mom’s desire for this television life only grew more desperate as she grew older. Her body aged, but she grew into more and more of a child.

When I left home at 18 Christmas kind of ended for me. I would occasionally visit mom, and sometimes my dad’s side of the family, but once grandma Ogin died I knew that the Ogin family Christmas’s were over. I remember one of my cousin’s saying that very same thing. It was grandma Ogin who held that family together. I don’t know why I grew so cold to Christmas. It just didn’t mean anything to me. I’m not religious, and “family,” well, it wasn’t like television. I like the lights, I think it’s pretty, but that’s about it. When I see images of Black Friday and other mania missions of purchasing, I think it’s a fairly gross holiday. Still, I understand that it matters to people, and it is a special time for them. It had mattered to my mother.

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This is my first round of holidays after my mom’s death, and all I feel is regret. Regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to go home and spend every Christmas with her- no matter how stressful it was at times- I still should have done it. But, that’s what death does it brings up all the should haves and could haves that the living has to deal with and settle alone. Christmas doesn’t change anything.

I’ve gone to all of the markets in Prague and I buy the hot wine, have a sweet treat, take pictures of the trees and the lights and I try to feel something. I don’t, I don’t feel anything; not joy or grief. But, I am in Prague, and when I can pull myself out of my misery to see beyond my grief I am aware that not everyone gets to be where I am right now. Death or no death I’m still experiencing life, and to some my life is glamorous because I am traveling, and death be damned.

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So, I’ll continue to force myself out into the lights amongst the smiling strangers, and the children, and the sweets smells, and warm steam rising from cocoas, hot wine, and late night coffees. I’ll climb towers and snap photos of picturesque images. But, honestly, I found more joy spending time in the Kampus museum looking at paintings and collages than I did wandering in the markets, and I think that is okay. It is okay to see it as just another day especially when each day should be held as spectacular and precious, and just because my mother is dead it doesn’t have to hold anymore power of grief over me than any other day of grieving.

And, look at that castle, my mother would have been so impressed.
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Now, if it snowed…maybe the Prague Christmas would seduce me. And, I always appreciate a proper seduction.