The meaning of my secular Christmas: Polish traditions that are worth celebrating Christmas for

A winter without a proper, lengthy and labourous Christmas feels somehow wrong. The pain of it, the extra work, the rush – I love it all! I want to share with you guys what makes Christmas so special for me, because as a meditating-reincarnation-affirming acupuncturist it is not really the birth Jesus. Neither is it the tinsel and the presents, I grew up in communist times when people were poorer and craved less, there were NO ads for the next flashing, beeping thing trying to convince you that you (or your children) needed it. So – to my dear secular husband, my Chinese friends and my British friends alike, here is a write up of what is so special about Polish Christmas:

1. It is the celebration of new Life and Hope coming to us when we most need it

It is no coincidence that Christmas is celebrated just around the winter solstice, when the nights are the longest and the days are the shortest. No one really knows when Jesus was born, and the end of December was chosen by the fathers of the Church for a very particular reason: ancient Romans already had a great feast on this day. They celebrated what was known as “Saturnalia”, and the general populace was so fond of this celebration that there was no way to ban it, Rather, they were told that from now on, they will celebrate… pretty much like they did before… but for the sake of Jesus Christ.

That same mid-winter feast was known among various pagan nations of Europe. Have you ever wondered what does the Christmas tree have to do with Jesus? The answer is: nothing. There were no coniferous trees in Bethlehem, there were palms! The idea of bringing in an ever green tree originated among the germanic tribes, and then spread across Europe. Much like Saturnalia, it was about celebrating life in the middle of the coldest, darkest season. With the biting frost and the bare branches, the winter has claimed almost all life, but not all. There are those whose green life perseveres. We celebrate this perseverance against all odds, in the toughest conditions, by celebrating the tree itself. Both Germany and Poland have carols which are about the evergreen tree, that do not mention Jesus at all.

In modern Poland, the imagery of baby Jesus takes on the symbolism of new life emerging against all odds. It is also a symbol of God sending hope and love to people when the times are the darkest. Even if you are not religious, it is a beautiful message that resonates with everybody – who among us does not know hard times, and does not enjoy the feeling that there is light at the end of every tunnel.

2. It is the greatest celebration of Motherhood

Christmas in Poland is as much about Jesus as it is about his Mother, who is having a baby alone, with no family or friends to help as would have been normal in those days, and with no material luxuries or even necessities. Our songs praise her and tell of her love and gentleness as she spends sleepless nights rocking the baby to sleep, protecting him from cold and the harshness of the world. Indeed, the baby in the our carols is very different that the English little king, who, as expected of royalty: “no crying he makes”. He is a real, tender baby, cold and hungry for the lack of provisions. One of my favourite carols describes how Mary takes of her head scarf to wrap cold little Jesus, and how she tries to make a pillow from the hay she lay him on.

Again, these are not some abstract religious feelings, but sentiments which every parent can empathise with. But through Christmas, that selfless parental love becomes something holy, something sacred and worth celebrating. In fact, many a mother I know would hum a carol to her little baby as a lullaby, maybe quietly contemplating how this new life at her breast is a perfect miracle.

3. It is about remembering those gone or lonely: the empty place at the table.

There is a tradition in Poland that I have not encountered anywhere else: it is one of leaving one full place setting empty on Christmas Eve. This empty place symbolises firstly, all the loved ones who cannot join you on the day, and secondly, people who are not fortunate enough to enjoy the company of the family on this special day. It can only be filled if a lonely stranger knocks on your door. While I have not actually had this happen (apparently, this right was often used by soldiers in world world one who were far away from their homes), tradition dictates that if you know of anyone who is going to be alone on Christmas Eve, you invite them to join. I think it is a beautiful tradition, it is one I am most happy to pass on to my children.

And here are some beautiful Christmas carols in which Mary sings to baby Jesus, for you to enjoy: