Christmas

The Christmas cycle begins with Adwent (Advent), a four-week period that precedes

Christmas, and is characterised by the preparation of Nativity scenes in churches. Krakow is particularly notable for this, holding a competition for the best scenes.

As for Christmas itself, Wigilia (Christmas Eve) is the day most celebrated in Polish homes, culminating in a solemn supper that begins when the first star appears in the evening sky. Before the meal the family shares oplatek (holy bread), wishing each other all the best for the future. Then the supper, which traditionally consists of 12 courses, including some of the best of traditional Polish cuisine, begins. An extra seat and place setting are left prepared for an unexpected guest. Kids will find their gifts under the choinka (Christmas tree), or sometimes they will be handed out by Swi^ty Mikolaj (Santa Claus) himself.

In the more traditional rural homes, there will still be much magic and witchcraft involved in Christmas Eve ceremonies, the forms differing from region to region. It's believed, for example, that animals speak with human voices on that one night, and that at midnight the water in wells turns into wine.

After supper is finished, the family set off for church for the specially celebrated Pasterka (Christmas Mass) at midnight. The service is held by most churches, and all are packed.

Christmas Day is, like the previous day, essentially a family day, featuring Mass, eating and relaxing. The holiday atmosphere continues for the remaining days of the year up until Sylwester (New Year's Eve), when the action starts with a variety of formal balls and private parties, held principally among urban communities.

On 6 January comes Dzien Trzech Kroli (Epiphany), marked by groups of carol singers, usually armed with a small portable crib or other religious images, who go from door to door. On this day people have a piece of chalk consecrated in church, then use it to write 'K+M+B' (the initials of the three Magi) on their front doors, to ensure Heaven's care over the home.

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