Christmas is one of the most important religious holidays in Poland, with Christmas Eve taking precedence over Christmas Day. But Christmas preparations begin four weeks before Dec. 24 with the start of Advent. In the old days, people fasted for Advent, homes were cleaned from top to bottom, grudges were forgotten and the birth of the Christ Child was eagerly anticipated.
St. Nicholas Day -- Dzien Swietego Mikolaja -- falls on Dec. 6 and it is the unofficial start of the Christmas season in Poland, even though Advent, which usually begins a week before, is the official kickoff. Good children receive fruit, nuts in the shell and honey-spice cookies, and bad boys and girls get a lump of coal.
Not a morsel of food is eaten before the first star in the sky is sighted. But before any feasting on the meatless meal can begin, the breaking of the oplatki, a Communion-like wafer, must take place. Then, an odd number of courses are served, anywhere from five to 13, depending on the wealth and preferences of the family.
Many Poles in the United States have never had the pleasure of experiencing a wigilia dinner, or not since they were children. The Polish Museum of America in Chicago holds several wigilia dinners to give people the opportunity to get in touch with their Polish heritage or to introduce people of different ethnicities to Polish culture.
Every year, the city of Krakow holds its creche competition for the finest and most beautifully rendered szopka or crib in the land. The finest examples are exhibited in the city's Museum of Ethnography and the others are sold at the fabulous Christmas market. These creches are like no others you've seen.