The First Star and the Second Day of Christmas

Cherished Traditions in the Homeland of Sts. John Paul II and Faustina

Polish Catholics visit a parish Nativity scene
Polish Catholics visit a parish Nativity scene (photo: Kelly Dudek)

Keeping watch at the window to spot the first star and preparing a 12-dish supper with one seat empty are two of many customs observed in Poland to this day.

Tradition is a significant link between the past and the present. Preserving old customs, we express our respect toward our ancestors and at the same time draw from a treasury where we find many clues to our identity, both national and individual. In Poland, where religion has always been of great importance, many customs are linked with faith.

The first special moment of a Polish Christmas is Christmas Eve, called wigilia (from Latin, “keeping watch.”) Many people fast until the evening meal, which includes no meat but is as close as you can get to fasting and feasting at the same time. The traditional 12 dishes (referring to the apostles) are of a kind allowing a small helping, so that all can be tasted. Among them are borscht (beetroot soup), gołąbki (cabbage rolls with buckwheat groats) and, of course, pierogi (filled dumplings).

Professor James Pula of Purdue University Northwest has Polish roots, and he shared some of his memories with Register readers. His father’s grandparents came to the United States from southeastern Poland. At home, the family spoke English, but although his mother, of French heritage, did not understand Polish, she could cook many traditional Polish dishes, such as gołąbki. She also skillfully prepared pierogi and even kiełbasa (sausage), whose names made it into the English language in their original form.

Wigilia begins, however, with sharing the Christmas wafer, called opłatek (from Latin, “an offering”) as a symbol of forgiveness and love. It was a custom especially dear to St. Faustina. Describing her Christmas Eve in Kraków in 1935, she wrote: “In the evening, before supper, I went to the chapel for a minute to share the wafer [spiritually] ... with those who are far away and whom Jesus loves greatly and to whom I owe so much” (diary, 574).

Recalling Christmas at his home, professor Pula remembers that they would sit down to a meatless meal on Dec. 24, but first came “star-spotting” — the custom of competing to report the appearance of the first star in the evening sky, a signal to sit down to supper. Still, today, as twilight falls, children across Poland can be found with their noses against the window panes, watching for the first sparkle of light.

Another heartwarming custom is leaving one place empty when setting the table. Throughout the tumultuous Polish history, its symbolic meaning was varied: It was left for the souls of the departed, for fatigued travelers, and for people imprisoned or exiled by the ruling regime.

The Pula family would cap the day by attending midnight Mass. This, too, is one of the most special moments in the Polish celebration of Christmas. Every parish prepares a crèche, and no two are alike. Some are true artworks, with the village of Bethlehem built in the smallest detail; some are huge, with life-size figures and live animals (to the delight of children). In a shrine in southeastern Poland, crude wooden walls of a stable are erected around the altar so that, when Mass is celebrated, Christ comes in a setting strongly reminiscent of the Nativity.

Christmas also calls for caroling, after wigilia, when families sitting around the table sing their favorite carols. The lively custom of gathering friends, dressing up as figures from the Nativity, and walking around the neighborhood to sing at every door has long been popular, but is now practiced mostly in the countryside.

St. John Paul II loved all Polish customs. He “imported” the tradition of Polish caroling into the Vatican, inviting Poles to come and sing together with him. In his opinion, Polish carols carried in them the nature of the Polish soul. John Paul II knew all the songs and would continue singing after others fell silent.

As Christmas Day comes to an end in most countries, the Poles are only halfway through the celebration, as the Church continues the holy season. The feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26, is also a national holiday observed as the Second Day of Christmas. In the words of Father Józef Naumowicz, also a university professor, the two celebrations put together can be read as a sequence: First, we rejoice in the birth of Christ, and then we remember St. Stephen, who encourages us to respond to the grace of the Nativity with the testimony of our faith.

Kelly Dudek is a passionate philologist, fascinated by the nature of language as well as the language of nature. She received her M.A. in English philology at the Jagiellonian University and completed a course in journalism at the Pontifical University of John Paul II, both in Kraków, Poland. She has worked as a translator and editor for Carmelite Publishing, volunteered at multilingual events like World Youth Day and the European Youth Meeting, and managed international communications for the Family Pastoral Care Foundation, helping Ukrainian refugees.