A few people have inquired about what Polish traditions we have around the holidays. The majority of Polish people are catholics and take Christmas rather seriously.
Mostly everything is the same, like the Christmas tree, presents, family time, etc. So I will focus on explaining the main differences between Christmas in Western culture and what I are up celebrating.
The biggest difference is Christmas Eve, which we refer to as Wigilia (vee-GEE-lia). The 24th is the day that the majority of celebrating happens. Families always get together for the evening and a formal dinner is the focus of the night. Because we obtain from eating meat on Christmas Eve, the dinner is 100% vegetarian. The meal starts with barszcz (borscht), and has tons of pierogi and fish dishes. Everything other than the soup is served family-style. Unfortunately for me, I don't like fish so I miss out on a huge part of the dinner. But there's always tooooons of other things to eat, as traditionally there are 12 courses on the table. Cooking before the meal starts days in advance and is usually done by all the women in the family together. Prior to dinner, everyone is given an oplatek (Christmas wafer). This is pretty much the same thing as Holy Communion that is given out at mass. We share our oplatek with each person at the table as we wish that person a Merry Christmas and all the best in the new year, along with a double kiss (or triple or quadruple even!) Another dinner tradition is to set an extra place-setting at the table. This is to symbolize inclusion and that if someone doesn't have anyone to celebrate Christmas with, and happens to knock on your door, you are ready for them.
After dinner, it's time to open presents! The kids would always rush through dinner and constantly ask when its time for presents. The youngest member of the family (that is old enough) plays Santa and hands out the gifts to their recipients. In my family, we always took turns opening our gifts. Because of this custom, we don't have the tradition of believing that Santa travels around the world and drops presents off at night. St Nicholas visits kids in schools on December 6th and that is when he brings present with him.
After presents, many families go to church for midnight mass. This specific mass is called Pasterka. It is the busiest mass of the year and you have to go really early to get a seat. Otherwise there is standing room only and people often have to stand out in the parking lot if there is no room left. The nativity scene is always the main attraction and the decorations are always beautiful.
The next day we have a huge breakfast and go to church again. The 25th and the 26th are known as the first and second day of Christmas and everything is closed. The Christmas season lasts until the Epiphany and many people leave their trees up long into January.
In my experience, Christmas was always a very serious occasion, focused around the birth of Christ. It is a time of reflection, prayer, and being with loved ones. The clothing is very formal and everyone tries to look their best. The songs are beautiful and religious. Here's an example of one of my favourites!
I hope I did our traditions justice through my explanation. The Wikipedia links I added really explain everything better and in more detail so give those a click if you want to know more. I'm sure I forgot a bunch of details!
I struggle a little with how to fuse my Polish Christmas and Mike's North American Christmas traditions together for when we have kids. I guess we will have to take it one year at a time and create our own new blended traditions!
I would love to know how you celebrate Christmas, if it's different from the norm around here. Please let me know in the comments!!