Most sources agree that koljada comes from the Roman word “calendae” which refers to the first 10 days of any month. Others believe the word is derived from “Kolo” or wheel – much like the word “Yule” is an Anglo-Saxon word for wheel. In the English language, Yuletide refers to the Christmas season and is used even in contemporary Christmas songs. The holiday of Winter Solstice may have originally been called “Ovsen”.
The Winter Solstice festival was filled with revelry. Processions of people masked like animals and dressed in costumes roamed the village. Often they were accompanied by a “goat’s head,” usually hand-made and placed on a stick. The person holding the goat’s head on a stick would then be covered with a blanket to give the illusion of a “goat person.” Sometimes a child—symbolic of the reborn sun—would accompany them seated on a horse played by two men in a horse costume. One of the pageant participants would carry a spinning solar symbol lit from within by a candle. Later, after Christianity entered the scene, the spinning “sun” became a star.
This group of revelers would go from house to house and stop to sing Koljada songs. These songs usually included invocations to the god or goddess of the holiday, praises and good wishes to those who listened, requests for gifts and threats if refused. The gifts were also called “koljada” and usually took the form of little pastries or “korovki” shaped like cows or goats. The grandmothers and grandfathers traditionally baked these “korovki.” The actions played against those who would not give rewards could be brutal. Garbage might be brought from all over the village and piled in front of the offending host’s gate, their gate might be torn off and thrown in the nearest water or livestock could be led off. One of the carolers would carry a bundle of hazel twigs and after receiving their “koljada” would gently hit his host/ess with a small stick loudly wishing happiness and health in the coming New Year. The small twig was then left with the farmer who nailed it above his door for wealth and protection.
Bonfires were sometimes lit, and the dead ancestors were invited inside to warm themselves. Mock funerals were held where a person pretending to be dead was carried into the house amidst both laughter and feigned weeping. A young girl would be chosen and traditionally would kiss the “corpse” on the lips. The “corpse” would leap up after being kissed—a symbol of rebirth. Holiday foods included kutia, a food consisting of whole grains, a universal symbol of new life, and pork.
On the last day of the koljada season in Poland, all the unmarried men of the village would get together to go begging for oats. Since it was impossible to get rid of them with just a scoop of oats, the farmer would need to keep a sharp eye on his grain that night, because otherwise the carolers would steal it as part of the evening’s custom. The men would then sell the oats and with the money would hire musicians and organize a large dance party in the village during the pre-Spring festival period.
Wigilia (Vee-GEE-lya) — Christmas Eve Dinner
Wigilia or Wilia is from the Latin word vigilare, which means to watch, or Czuwać in Polish. Close to the heart of every Pole, it is filled with such mystical symbolism that it is considered by many to be a greater holiday than Christmas itself.
December 24th had much significance centuries before Christ’s birth. It followed the longest night and the shortest day and the mystical symbolism associated with it was closely tied to the solar system. In early Poland the word Wigilia was formerly known as the day before a feast day. Today it is used only as the day before Christ’s birth. The Wigilia supper is the most special, and there is no other like it throughout the year.
With severe cold weather and deep snows, most Polish families hold their festivities within each family group. A custom from the past encompassed the belief that spirits permeated the home on this day. They were to be made as comfortable as possible since this day would prophesize everything that was to happen in the coming year. Everyone was careful of his/her conduct. They were to rise early, say their prayers, wash thoroughly, dress and then peacefully and patiently attend to the work at hand.
Preparations for Christmas Eve began right after midnight. A young girl from the family would go to the nearest stream and bring water to be used to sprinkle on the cows in the barn and also on the family, awakening them in this manner. It was believed that water on this day had the power to heal and prevent illness and later the entire family would wash themselves in this water.
The males in the family would go into the forest and bring back the top of a spruce or fir and other branches to decorate the house. This top of the evergreen tree was hung from a beam in the ceiling, with the tip facing down over the table where the Wigilia supper was to be held.
To prepare for this most important meal of the year, the table is first covered with straw or hay, and then with a white tablecloth. The blessed opłatek is placed on the best plate of the house. The youngest child is sent out to look for the first star in the sky and the Wigilia meal begins. Those sitting down to eat must add up to an even number, otherwise someone would not live to the next Christmas Eve supper. To prevent this from happening, someone was always invited, be it an honored guest or a wandering beggar. It mattered little whether a family was of noble station or peasant, traditional dishes were served and often with the same pageantry. One of the traditional dishes was kutia,which was made from hulled barley or wheat, cooked and sweetened with honey to which mashed poppy seeds, raisins and nuts were added. The dish was set down in a place of honor near the Wigilia table and it was the first to be eaten. Wigilia is a meatless dinner with an uneven number of dishes served; 13 being the preferred number as it represents the number that sat down at the Last Supper. Various fish comprise the main fare. Many households also prepare a great variety of accompanying dishes reflecting the produce of the family’s harvest such as borscht with uszka (dumplings), matjas (herring), makowiec (poppy seed cakes), nut rolls, dried fruits (apples, plums, apricots, dates, etc.) and salads. Certain regions have more specific offerings, and some include edible Christmas ornaments.
After supper the family would sing carols and exchange gifts, which were deposited by the Aniołek (angel) under the Christmas tree. The Gospodarz, or head of the family, would light the candles on the tree, and the smoke from them foretold the future. The period approaching midnight was a magical time. The children would give the leftover bits of the Christmas wafer to the animals, who, if you listened carefully, would talk. Even well water turned to wine. Now it was time to get ready to attend Pasterka (Midnight Mass), meaning the Shepherd’s Mass, as they were first to greet the newborn Christ Child. Everyone would hike through the dark of the night in freezing weather or ride in sleighs to their local churches. On the way to the Mass, they counted as many stars as there were in the heavens, which would indicate how many sheaves of grain would be harvested the next year.