In the old times there were no Christmas trees in the Polish houses. They became widespread only in the first half of the 20th century, but were not in use in most of the rural households of the central, southern or eastern Poland as late as before the World War 2. At first, the decorated Christmas trees started coming to the Polish houses around the late 18th century, first appearing in the houses of protestants, and then being adopted by the Polish townspeople and the upper classes. Eventually, the Christmas Trees came with so-called ‘commercialization’ of Christmas in the 20th century – just like in the other countries celebrating the holidays around the world. What did the Polish people prepare to decorate their houses before that?
To answer this question I will show you some of the most widespread decorations known from the old Polish countryside. Many of them can be seen only in Polish ethnography museums around the country nowadays, no longer in the regular use inside the modern houses (however, many of them are making a comeback).
These decorations started fading away in 20th century. Of course, there are still some households across Poland that cherish those elements as a part of the family tradition, but for majority of Poles these are elements they hear about only from their grandparents or learn about in local museums. Many of old decorations were also adapted to decorate the modern Christmas trees. Most importantly, the original decorations are carefully recreated in December in almost all of regional skansens (open-air museums) dedicated to the rural culture: colorful installations are prepared in the preserved old wooden cottages to show a traditional rural Christmas setting. Those of you who are in Poland in December can definitely visit a nearest skansen that does this kind of educative installations. Some decorations are also used in various kinds of art installations inspired by the Polish folklore.
Below, I will try to show you the best I can what are the most important elements, and what symbolism is hidden in them. Most of them can be traced to pre-Christian Slavic celebrations of the winter solstice: a ‘pagan’ feast called in Polish Szczodre Gody (among other old names) which is celebrated by the Polish Rodnovers (believers of the Slavic Native Faith) nowadays. The old decorative elements and customs were incorporated into the celebrations of Christmas in Poland in a slow process of syncretism over the past centuries.
Below are of course not all of the types of the decorations used in the old Polish countryside: not to prolong the article too much, I focused on a few of the most important elemets that hold a certain symbolic meaning.
1. STRAW AND HAY – słoma i siano
This is the first thing that I have to mention here: straw (and also hay in general) is the material used frequently to prepare the old types of decorations, and also used in various rites throughout the year. I can’t stress out enough how important it was in the spiritual life of the old Polish countryside, and it’s a detail I’m frequently mentioning in my other articles whenever the elements made from straw appear: it was used to prepare various protective ornaments and treated as a ‘magickal barrier’.
Starting with the harvest season when the crops were collected from the fields, the straw as well as the hay were carefully selected, dried and stored for the later use. To the Polish people of the past, straw was a significant ‘substance’ that had been carrying the vital forces from the sacred earth to the grains – grains that were later providing them with the bread, an essential and sacred part of the Polish daily cuisine (you can check my old article about the importance of bread and the harvest rituals). The hollowed and dried straw used for the decorations was believed to be still carrying the vital forces, and being able to provide the household with fertility, growth and health.
How was it used for Christmas? The best and strongest straw that was so carefully selected and stored was used for making various kinds of ornaments which you can see below in the other sections. The thinner straw and the hay were neatly scattered on the floor, and often also on the table, almost as a tablecloth (or sometimes put underneath the actual tablecloth). They were providing the protective ‘magickal barrier’.
Below are a few examples of the use of straw:
Before Christmas, similar festivities were organized on the mentioned evening of Szczodre Gody (the Slavic winter solstice festival) – the longest night of the year when various demons and dark forces were believed to be the strongest, able to threaten humans. The ‘magickal barrier’ was protecting the family as well as the whole household during that festive evening.
There’s a very popular remnant of that old custom still present in the Polish celebrations of the Christmas Eve. Nowadays, a handful of hay or straw is put underneath the tablecloth for the Christmas Eve supper – the Wigilia (you can read more about the Wigilia customs here). The origins of that element are very often forgotten, sadly, and the modern Polish Christians are usually choosing to interpret it as a symbol of the stables where the Jesus was born.
Nowadays there are many shops in Poland that offer straw, carefully prepared and ready to make the Christmas decorations, or hay to put under the tablecloth. However, in the past there was a belief that only the straw or hay one grew, cut and dried themself was having the strong protective properties important in creation of the ‘magickal barrier’.
These are old decorations predating the Christmas Trees in Poland. There were various different regional names of that decoration in Poland, and the name ‘podłaźnik’ and its diminutive form ‘podłaźniczka’ were the most widespread. The name comes from old-Polish term ‘pod łazem’ (modern: ‘pod lasem’), what can be translated as ‘on the edge of a forest‘.
They were still common in many regions of southern and eastern Poland even as late as in the 1920s-1930s, but later they were almost entirely replaced by the typical Christmas Trees. Nowadays, they are still surviving in some of the Polish households, or celebrating a comeback – most often as an additional decoration of the house, accompanying the main element that is the Christmas Tree. They are also prepared by the Polish Rodnovers for the celebrations of Szczodre Gody on the evening of the winter solstice.
Podłaźniczki are made from the top of a fir or a spruce tree, or from their branches tied neatly together. In many regions they form various circular or spherical shapes. A podłaźniczka was most often hanging down from a construction beam in a cottage, and the industrialization of the Polish countryside coming with a change of the construction materials of the rural houses was among the main reasons for their decline. It was usually placed above the dining table (in the centre of the room), or in the corner of the room. They were prepared only once a year, for Christmas.
Roots of these decorations come from pre-Christian Slavic celebrations of the winter solstice festival as well. It’s connected to old symbolism of an ever-green ‘divine tree’ (known better under the name of the tree of life). Many ethnographic interpretations show their connection to the notion of the circle of life, the axis mundi, or the divine sky (hemisphere), reflected in their shape. The divine sky might be the best clue here, because the old Slavs believed that on the night of the winter solstice a ‘New Sun’ is being born to travel through the sky for the upcoming year. Some decorations might reflect that ancient idea, as you can see on the photos below.
Hung inside the house, podłaźniczka was meant to bring life, abundance of goods, and a good health, to provide a symbolic connection with the divine world, and to protect the people from the evil, and neutralize the bad spells. Hanging it right above the human heads (above the dining table) was intentional, and decorations adorning it were very important in their symbolism as well.
Below you can see a few examples of a podłaźniczka from Polish ethnography museums and cultural centres:
What’s interesting in the context of the meaning of straw described in the first section, in some regions of Poland the podłaźniczki were made of woven straw. The symbolism behind them was unchanged in those places, and the use of straw give them a more defined meaning in the course of interpretations. Sometimes they are confused with decorations called ‘pająki’, described in one of the sections below. Here are some examples of the podłaźniczki made of straw:
Circular decorations made from shapes cut from thin wafers (opłatek) ‘glued’ together with water. Their name ‘światy’ can be literally translated as ‘worlds‘. Smaller decorations made from the wafers were also called ‘gwiazdy’ (‘stars’).
They were decorating the podłaźniczki described above (you can already see a lot of them on the pictures showing podłaźniczki), and the biggest and the most decorative ‘świat’ was usually placed in the centre of that ‘divine tree’.
Ethnographic resources from the early 20th century show that many Polish rural people interpreted them as a symbol of ‘the world created by God’. Their origins can be linked to the old-Slavic beliefs in the ‘New Sun’ being born on the winter solstice. They were prepared only once a year for Christmas.
They became widespread in 19th century and were used as decorations providing a protection against illness, and ensuring health and prosperity. According to many resources they replaced an older decoration made from apples (a symbol of health in the Polish folklore). Shapes and colors of ‘światy’ come in many regional variations.
Below you can see a few closeups:
(Side note for those who’d like to look for more examples for them: because the Polish word ‘światy’ has the regular meaning of ‘worlds’, the best way to look for other images of the decorations is to search for the term ‘światy z opłatka’)
These are popular ornaments on a delicate construction made from straw tied together with threads, and decorated with various colorful elements like yarn, paper, dry peas, and other materials. Pająki can be literally translated as ‘spiders’.
It can be a big separate decoration, hanging down from the ceiling just like the podłaźniczka, but in the case of the Christmas season it can be also prepared smaller as an ornament to hang either on the podłaźniczka or on a Christmas Tree. Pająki provided a symbolic protection, and are sometimes compared to the ‘dream catchers’ known from the Native American cultures due to their similar function.
Pająki were prepared for various festivities throughout the year, and come in numerous regional forms. In the past I wrote a separate article about them which you read by clicking here (it includes links to DIY).
Below a few examples of pająki in a Christmas setting:
(Side note: do not, I repeat, do not google the word ‘pająk’ alone if you’re afraid of the actual spiders. The safest way to find more pictures of these decorations is to google the phrase ‘pająk ludowy’ meaning roughly a folk spider)
5. DZIADY / SNOPY / DIDUCHY
This element has many regional names, and it was extremely hard for me to decide which word to use – eventually I set with the word ‘dziad’ and why: it’s explained in the paragraphs below. ‘Dziad’ is a dry sheaf, neatly tied together. It is made out of the very last stalks of grain cut from the family’s crop field during the harvest season. The whole process of cutting and tying of the so-called ‘last grain’ was done in a ritual manner, and the sheaf with the grains still on was carefully stored until December.
This decoration had many symbolic meanings. It symbolized the householders’ ancestors who can’t celebrate with the family anymore. The word ‘dziad’, which I like to use, means literally a grandfather or an old man. Dziady (plural form) was a name of a Slavic feast dedicated specifically to the ancestors, which originally were celebrated at least four times a year on the occasions of the solstices and equinoxes. These feasts survived the longest in Poland in a form syncretized with the All Souls Day, as a feast called in English a Forefather’s Eve celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November (read about it here). On the occasion of the winter solstice, a nod towards the ancestors was needed as well – and that was the main purpose of preparing this very symbolic sheaf.
During Christmas the decoration called ‘dziad’ was very often put on a chair and sat by the table for the festive supper to symbolically dine with the family as a reminescent of those who passed away. It had even its own spoon and bowl, in which small pieces of food was sometimes placed. In some regions the drinks were also shared with the sheaf – water, mead or vodka were poured on the table in front of the ‘dziad’.
A remnant of that old custom is the Polish tradition of leaving an empty seat by the table on the Christmas Eve, nowadays interpreted as being left for an ‘unexpected guest’ (more about the Polish Christmas Eve customs here).
When it wasn’t sitting by the table, the ‘dziad’ was placed in a sacred corner in the main room. The so-called ‘sacred corners’ inside houses are a common concept throughout the Slavic lands, and the home altars were usually prepared in corners of the rooms. In the Polish language the old-Slavic ‘pagan’ temples are called ‘kąciny’, word derived from the word ‘kąt’ (‘corner’).
Dziad had also other symbolic purposes. As the ‘last sheaf’ it was used to ensure the fertility of earth and abundance of crops in the next year. After the festivities, the sheaf was untied, and the straw was tied and twisted into long ‘ropes’ or ‘cords’ (powrósła in Polish). These ‘ropes’ were then tied around trees growing on the property. It was a way the rural people were putting a charm of health and fertility on the trees, expecting them to provide an abundance of fruits and nuts in the upcoming year.
Below are a few examples of the ‘dziad’, recreated in ethnography museums:
(Side note: to find more pictures of them it’s the best to google the word diduch or didukh which is a loan word from the Ukrainian language, or the Polish phrases ‘dziad wigilijny’ or ‘snop wigilijny’).
Articles to read more in Polish:
- Obrzędy i wierzenia wigilijne dawnej wsi polskiej
- Etnografia Lubelszczyzny – cykl roczny w życiu wsi – grudzień
- Krótka historia Wigilii Bożego Narodzenia – tradycje, wierzenia, przesądy
- Grudniowe święta i ich znaczenie dla kultury regionu (Gorajec)
- Zwyczaje i obrzędy górali łąckich – Święta Bożego Narodzenia
- Zwyczaje i obrzędy wigilijne wsi przemyskiej
- Boże Narodzenie na Sądecczyźnie. Tradycja i przesądy
- Boże Narodzenie, czyli… Święta Godowe
- Wigilia na dawnej wsi – trochę obrzędowości chrześcijańskiej, trochę pogańskiej
- Boże Narodzenie w staropolskiej tradycji
- Nim przybyła choinka – o diduchu i podłaźniczce
- Dziad – przodek słomianego pająka
- Podłaźniczka – babcia choinki
- Podłaźniczka, światy i inne odchodzące zwyczaje wigilijne
- Od podłaźniczki do choinki
- Opłatki i ozdoby z opłatka w tradycji polskiej [pdf]
Other of my articles focused of Christmas:
- Wigilia: the Christmas Eve in Poland
- What to prepare for the Wigilia (explaining the 12 dishes)
- Star symbolism and Christmas gift bringers from Polish folklore
Do you have questions or want to know more about some other elements of Polish Christmas? Feel free to use the comment section below :)