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FEATURE
DECEMBER 2018
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Forgotten Christmas Decorations

What Was In Poland Before The Christmas Tree

by Staś Kmieć

Green at the ceiling

Today, we cannot imagine Christmas without a Christmas tree. The most beautiful examples stand in shopping malls, in city squares and in the homes of many “traditionalists” – who visit with their cherished ornaments each year. Huge, full of glittering decorations and lights, today this custom reminds us early on about the upcoming holidays, and of course Christmas shopping – for it is under the tree that we find gifts on Christmas Day. However, this is not a native tradition of Poland. So what was in Polish homes before the Christmas tree appeared? 

Last year, American media and the internet wondered if 2017 was the year when Christmas was turned upside down, as an Old-World Polish tradition came into the forefront in a different way. In Poland, there has been a renaissance in some circles to rediscover the long-forgotten art of folk ornaments, and the creation of decorations from opłatek wafers has been experiencing a revival, as well … and what was old is now new again.

The Origin of the Christmas tree. Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people during winter. In the same manner that we decorate our homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. It was believed that evergreens would keep away evil spirits, and illness.

The tradition of dressing a Christmas tree came to us from Alsace, the historical region and former rgion in northeastern France on the Rhine River plain. Bordering Germany and Switzerland, it has alternated between German and French control over the centuries and reflects a mix of those cultures.

A well-established tradition in Alsace for over 5 centuries, it was in the town of Slestat, on the 21st December 1521 that a decorated Christmas tree was mentioned for the first time in history. The records reference four schillings, which were given to forest rangers to watch over trees on Christmas Day in order to protect its woods from being ruined by the locals who wished to decorate their Christmas tree. The inhabitants of Slestat adorned the whole tree – which was hung from the ceiling – starting a new custom called “sapin de nol” or “arbre de nol,” that would continue throughout the centuries.

Displaying upside down may date back to the 7th century. Legend has it that Boniface, a Benedictine monk, used the triangular shape of a fir tree to explain the Holy Trinity to pagans in Germany. The shape also recalled that of Jesus’s crucifixion, and the tradition continued in Central and Eastern Europe into the 12th century.

Ethnographers distinguished three Christmas decorations on the basis of their attributed meanings, which are considered to be the predecessor of the “Christmas tree,” as we now know it. Podłaźniczka and Światy are indigenous Polish ornaments, while Pająki are a decoration found all over the world, even in traditional cultures of America and Australia.

Old Slavic customs survived in the symbolism of holidays or rituals. The church fought against the old pagan customs, but they were very strongly rooted and often transformed into customs associated with Catholic holidays.

“Diduch” – keeping our Ancestors Near. During pagan times, it was believed that the winter solstice is a special time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead, sacrum and profanum, between the village and the forest , and even between the village and the cemetery are blurred.

In the village, it was an old-fashioned custom to decorate the houses with cereal sheaves of wheat, rye, barley and oats for Christmas time. Diduch (also known as Dziad) was an early decoration – literally meaning “grandfather.” In the East Slavic tradition, it was the first grains mowed during the harvest season. During the Christmas season (in pagan times during the Feast of Gody), it was set up in the eastern corner of the room, standing upward; other times it is placed in each of the four corners of the room. Over time, it was decorated – mostly with apples, nuts and dried flowers. Symbolically, it would guarantee a good harvest in the next season and invoke a watchful spirit to protect against evil powers.

Originally, Diduch was associated primarily with the cult of ancestors. Meaning as much as “grandfather,” it was placed near the table, so that the deceased ancestors would be able to feast with their family. For 12 nights it was kept at home until the end of the festivities of the Bountiful (after Epiphany), the grains were extracted and ritually burned. Looking at today’s liturgical calendar, one can say that Diduch stood in the room approximately from Christmas Eve to Three Kings Day.

A Spider’s Chandelier. Before decorated trees made an appearance, in the rural confines of the Old Poland, there were mobiles (pająki) suspended from the ceiling. The word means “spiders,” as they resemble the delicate, intricate design of a web. The mobile was originally made of the best grains from the harvest; later it was made of straw reeds decorated with paper ornamentation and feathers.

Perhaps the most elaborate and effective decoration, it has the largest number of various forms, shapes and structural differences. There are pająki reminiscent of a chandelier, canopy or star. Their shape depends on the region and is influenced by church and local artistic industry.

The straw had to come from the last harvesting sheaf that had been brought home and laid in a corner where it had been year-round. Over time, this straw took on an increasingly decorative form, until pająki were developed.

In the traditional meaning, the Polish pająki were working similarly to the “dream catchers” known from the Native American cultures. Intricate designs were created to maintain the vegetative cycle and ensure fertility the following year. An extremely important element was a cross made of straw placed in a central place. Its meaning, however, is not related to the Christian religion, but to the pagan custom of enchanting crops in the fields and protecting them from evil. It is also a form of protection against evil spirits, diseases and witches.

Green at the Ceiling – the Fir Tree enters the Home. Originating in pre-Christian times, the antecedent and ancient Polish custom was to hang the topmost part of a spruce tree upside down from the ceiling rafters, resembling a pająk-chandelier, and to then decorate doorways and walls with separate boughs from the remainder of the tree. Sermon texts dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries referred to this use of the tree as a pagan rite. Unable to halt the growing trend, the church then reinterpreted the tree as a “paradise tree,” thus adopting the custom into church ceremony.

Referred to as podłaźniczka or podłaźnik (from pod łazem/pod lasem), it was also known as jutka, sad rajski (orchard paradise), Boże drzewko (God’s tree or divine tree), or wiecha (wisp) in the south and gaj (grove) in the central regions, the first trees were adorned in a minimalistic manner with apples, walnuts and unblessed round communion hosts. Podłaźnik is a term for a young man carrying an evergreen branch, who wishes people good luck at Christmas and New Year.

In pre-Christian tradition, an evergreen tree was considered a symbol of life and rebirth, continuity and fertility. Similarly, the ornaments hanged on it had their meaning. The apples were a reminder of Adam and Eve’s fall of grace, and wafer hosts reminded them of faith. Temptation and redemption – side by side in a perfect dcor. The nut was closely related to erotic life – connecting marriage and bringing love. Later interpretations were that apples also symbolized vegetation, health and beauty, in the Christian meaning – the “heavenly tree of knowledge” or the “tree of life,” and nuts would bring prosperity, wisdom, patience, abundance; and strength.

Podłaźniczki are a regional tradition, because it occurred mainly in the southern part of today’s Poland. The range included Śląsk, Krakw, Sącz, Pogrze, Rzeszw and Podhale, reaching all the way to the San River.

All the decorations would be prepared long before Christmas – but according to the tradition they could not be hanged in the house sooner than on the day of Wigilia (Christmas Vigil) – December 24th or else they would bring bad luck to the household as a sign of excessive haste. The decorations could stay even into February, as the custom was only to remove them before Ash Wednesday. Both the podłaźniczka and the pająk should be prepared fresh each year and burned before the next autumn.

Ornamentation made by hand and from everyday items evolved to include creations of colored tissue, paper, shiny foil wrappers, ribbons, straw, and decorated egg shells. They were often illuminated by stoczki (thin wax candles or in the form of a ball). Strings of peas or garland chains (łańcuchy) of paper, wood carvings or alternating straw with tissue paper fans would cascade along the edges — giving a chandelier effect. The łańcuchy were originally a symbol of the biblical serpent, but later of family ties. During the partitions it became a national representation of oppression and was called the “captivity chain.”

As a symbol of the miracle of birth, blown eggs became a popular decoration. Drained of its contents, the eggs become the base for pitchers, doves, roosters, and angels. Candles would protect against darkness and evil and were a link to the “other world.” Fruit, gingerbread, honey-spice pierniki cookies, and wrapped candies were particular attractions for the children.

Documentation from the early 19th century indicates that in villages, blossoming twigs of apple, cherry or hazel trees also functioned as podłaźniczki. Caroling with a podłaźniczka was also practiced in southern Poland. In Krakw, it was called sad (orchard) and was a form of courtship. When a boy was interested in a girl, would visit her home, break an apple from the “orchard” and eat the apple. The girl’s consent meant that they were moving towards marriage.

In villages, the custom survived until the 1920s and in some remote areas until World War II.

World Spheres from Wafers. Round wafer hosts were hung are ornamentation early on, but Światy (world spheres) or Wilijki made from opłatek wafers appeared in Poland in the 19th century and actually only in Poland. In no other country, are wafer ornaments to be found as Christmas decorations.

Opłatek was baked at churches and monasteries. Unleavened wheat dough was poured in specially prepared forms with Spheres from wafersChristmas motifs. The priest, organist or altar servers brought them around to the houses, extending good wishes, and receiving specialties or donations for the church in return. The custom of spreading wafers was a sign of sharing bread with the whole parish community. They symbolized reconciliation and brotherly love, and it was the popularity of these wafers that gave root to the idea of making colorful ornaments out of them.

Opłatki are generally white, but sometimes were colored (pink, green and yellow) with natural dyes such as beet juice. The “worlds” were made of these colorful and white wafers. Cut circles crossed each other to form spherical figures intricately folded and secured in place ​​with natural glue – saliva, but you could use water. Similar to pająki, “worlds” were hung on crossed sticks, so that they formed a chandelier and hung loosely from the ceiling, or above the table. They were supposed to protect against evil, and ensure happiness and prosperity in the coming year. It is a forgotten ornament that is now experiencing a new interest in Poland. They can still be seen in ethnographic museums, whwere instructional classes are given in this folk art. While hanging, the family often prayed Anioł Pański (Angelus), Ojcze Nasz (Our Father) or Zdrowaś Mario (Hail Mary).

Today, opłatki have a rectangular shape rather than a circle, but can be carefully cut to shape. 

Światy symbolized power over the earth and the sky, which is related to pre-Christian beliefs in the power of the winter solstice. According to the researchers of folk culture, inspiration for them were the paintings and sculptures of Christ holding in his hand, a golden globe symbolizing the earth with the cross as a sign of divine power at the top.

In literature, the ornaments are mentioned in the work of Juliusz Słowacki, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Władysław Reymont. Reymont paid particular attention to the “worlds” describing their beauty of form, their location in the interior, and the occasion of their display. Sienkiewicz wrote about the ornaments from the wafers in the novel Potop (The Deluge), and in a poetic novel in 10 songs.

Over time, simple forms with wafer — crosses, stars, suns, triangles, and crescents grew into large spatial compositions. 

Countroversy over an Upside-Down Tree. Met with wonderment by some and disdain from others, the upside-down Christmas tree experienced much commentary on the internet and Twitter last year. Some were quick to comment – calling the craze impractical or even disrespectful; others were quick to point out that the idea isn’t exactly new, and in fact, these elevated evergreens actually go way back.

All this prompted me to finally make a podłaźniczka for Wigilia at my parents’ home. My father helped to find a suitable tree from the back of the yard and devise the method to suspend it. Despite it being in full view, everyone seemed to hit their heads on it, and it was absolutely glorious in its elegant simplicity.

Artificial upside-down trees are now on sale everywhere from Walmart to Target to Home Depot to Wayfair. Most are in stands, with a few that can be hung or attached to the upper corner of a room.

Beyond its novelty, an upside-down tree has some definite advantages:

  • Hanging from the ceiling, it looks spectacular
  • It’s a European tradition dating back to the 15th Century
  • Your ornaments will actually be visible – bringing more bulbs to eye level
  • The trees are safer for pets and children, who will be prevented for swiping or chewing at low-hanging ornaments
  • You save floor space and there will be more room for a bigger pile of presents.

Who could ever complain about that?

So, it turns out that an upside-down Christmas tree is not sacrilegious at all. In fact, it holds the same special meaning as an upright one. Between past traditions, myth, legend and childhood memories, the Christmas tree is for most of us the symbol of a holiday that brings together family – young and old.

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