Misiu comes from the carp capital of Lower Silesia, so please keep what I am going to tell you next a secret because I may get run out of town….I hate carp. It’s not even the taste that I don’t like. It’s just that preparing a dish from carp is so much work and it is almost as much work to eat it, picking out all the tiny bones. No thanks. We’re having salmon.
My first ever Christmas in the Village (aka the carp capital) was carpless. That’s because no one invited me for Christmas, sniffle, sniffle. I think everyone else thought that I had already been invited somewhere so nobody invited me. Or that’s what I like to tell myself because in Poland it is a tradition to set an extra place at your table for a sad and lonely guest…like me.
My first Christmas with carp, let’s say carpful (as opposite to carpless) was at my parents-in-law’s. My parents-in-law don’t drive so whenever we come to the Village we offer to go to the center for a bigger than usual shopping. Two days before Christmas, my mother-in-law asked if I would take her by car to buy the Christmas carp. Of course I agreed, got my shoes and coat on, grabbed my keys and wondered to myself what my mother-in-law was bringing a bucket for. When we arrived to carp central there was a long line of cold people who all had buckets too. Then as we got closer and closer to the front of the line I found out why. You buy carp alive. The rest of the process from bucket to table you can figure out for yourself. I should mention the carp often has a pit stop between bucket and table in the family bathtub.
My nephew fishing for carp in a private pond
his catch which he threw back
These carp from Misiu’s hometown are not just your regular river carp. They live in a huge network of ponds dug in the middle ages, (see pictures below taken by me in better weather). This area is a nature preserve especially popular with cyclists and bird watchers. The fish are given feed but they also have the opportunity to feed themselves naturally in the ponds. Some time before selling, the carp are collected into tanks where they are sorted (only younger fish are sold) and then “rinsed” for lack of a better word. I mean the water in the tanks is continuously changed for fresh water up until the carp are sold. Carp from these ponds are considered ecological which is the big thing now but actually they have always been ecological. At the shops or stands selling carp from these ponds, you will see that a special certificate is on display verifying the origin of the carp.
One Christmas that we spent in America, my uncle asked Misiu what we eat in Poland on Christmas. When Misiu replied that we eat carp, my uncle became very sad for us that we eat such a poor thing for the best dinner of the year.
Actually, I should say the best supper of the year because the most important Christmas meal in Poland is on Christmas Eve not Christmas Day. The Christmas Eve Supper (Wigilia) should begin when you see the first star come out. This is a fasting supper which is pretty funny considering it should have 12 dishes. It is fasting in the sense that it is meatless and also without alcohol at least until after Midnight Mass called Pasterka when you can crack open a bottle of the hard stuff. I mean why not, the Christmas star brings your presents on Christmas Eve so you don’t have to get up early to see what Santa Claus has brought you.
After spotting the first star or in most cases pretending to have spotted the first star, the family collects around the table to share the Christmas wafer. It is like a communion wafer and you should take your piece and go from one person to the next sharing Christmas wishes and then taking a piece of each other’s wafer. This tradition is really hard for me. Not because I am embarrassed to show my emotions, but because it is really difficult in Polish. Here’s a typical Christmas wish – “Życzę Ci Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku”. That’s a mouthful for just saying “I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. I remember one year when I had been terribly ill, everyone wished me good health but only Babcia Ewa wished me the strength to fight my illness. I noticed that she had very specific wishes for each member of the family. I also caught her checking her wishes cheat sheet (ściąga) from her sweater pocket ;)
I found my own ściąga on the internet. Here are some of the shorter wishes that I found.
Aby wszystkie dni w roku były tak piękne
i szczęśliwe, jak ten jeden wigilijny wieczór.
That all the days of the year were so beautiful and happy as this one Christmas Eve.
szczęścia i wrażliwości.
Merry Christmas, lots of laughs, love, joy, happiness and sensitivity.
Wesołych i spokojnych Świąt
oraz sterty miłych prezentów pod choinką.
A merry and peaceful Christmas and a pile of nice presents under the tree.
After that you pretty much dig in. My mother-in-law insists that you have at least a bite of all 12 dishes. That’s pretty difficult if you don’t like carp and she has prepared it 4 different ways each one constituting one of the 12 dishes. There is the mandatory fried carp, Greek carp in tomato sauce, marinated carp and last but not least the most horrid of all, carp in gelatin.
You could say that Christmas Eve is the most important part of the Christmas tradition in Poland and that most Christmas Eve’s in Poland look pretty much the same (wafer, supper, carols, mass). I think in the US we put more attention on Christmas Day and most Christmas morning’s in the US look pretty much the same too (early rise, presents, breakfast, later dinner). That’s why we’ve decided to have a Polish Christmas Eve (sans presents) and an American Christmas morning with the presents that Santa Claus has brought at night waiting for us under the tree. We have our own family now and we have to make Christmas our own. And by the way, that means a carpfree supper, wine with dinner and an early bedtime after watching Frosty the Snowman dubbed into Polish but with the songs still in English.
PS carpless: you’d like to have some carp but there isn’t any
carpful: 3 or more carp dishes on the table
carpfree: there isn’t any carp but it is by your own choice
More dishes to come, if only I can find the time!