Christmas in the Kresy, the eastern borders of Poland. Part II: Memoirs from Podole
Photo from Semanticscholar.org. Map of the Podole region in yellow from which these excerpts are taken.
“A few days before the (Christmas Eve) supper, preparations began. First, we cleaned and then decorated a Christmas tree brought from the forest. Grandma cooked wheat berries for kutia, it had to be pounded so that the husk fell off. The kutia was cooked for about six hours, stirring from time to time so that it didn’t burn through. There was dough for pampushki (also spelled pampuszki), which mama helped her with, and we helped with setting the table. Grating poppy seeds was the privilege of our grandfather Stanisław. Grandmother Weronika allotted this very serious matter only to him. The poppy seeds had to be crushed gently so as not to break the makutra(also spelled makitra, makotra) which had been bought before the war. The makogon (wooden pestle) was made by Grandma's elder son, Władysław, when he just started working in a machine tool factory in the mid-1950's."
A makutra was a specially made clay bowl with interior horizontal grooves that helped crush the poppy seeds. Photo #1 from Muzeum Etnogaficzne Kraków. Photo #2 from Wikipedia
"We helped grandfather by holding the makutra with our hands and sprinkling in more poppy seeds and sugar. I remember how you wanted to just stop the moment and use your tongue to lick a little bit of this poppy from the makogon. The process of grating poppy seeds and cooking wheat grains took a long time. One of us jumped out to the street from time to time to look for the first star…”
Polish artists #1 Jan Wasilewski #2 T. Popiel #3 H. Ciechowicz depict looking for the first star on Christmas Eve.
“The most interesting aspect was preparing the Christmas Eve table. My older sister and father were making a diduch(also spelled didukh, and in Poland, called dziad) out of different types of ears of grain. You had to weave them together very hard so that the family was always strong not only on Christmas, but also throughout the year.(See note at end) We brought hay from a neighbor and sprinkled it under the tablecloth, part of the hay was placed in the manger. Mama would take out her most beautiful embroidered tablecloth and cover the table with it. Grandma would bring a lighted candle and the opłatek, saying: “Opłatek on the table - light on the table.” The candle was left lit until we all left for the midnight mass so that darkness would not surround our families and for everyone to clearly see their way through life.
"The next dish that went to the table was kutia richly seasoned with honey, nuts, poppy seeds. Wheat grain guaranteed the presence of bread all year round, nuts - strength and health, poppy seeds drove away even the smallest worries and honey was a reward for the most hardworking bees in the family. Apples, garlic and a coin were also placed on the table. Apples - for every child to be ruddy and healthy, garlic was to protect against diseases and various impure forces, and the coin symbolized abundance in the next year. Then, other food went to the table, fish, herring, vinaigrette, followed by cabbage stuffed with buckwheat and also mushroom soup. Mama’s favorite was pampuchy (yeast raised bun, sometimes a pancake) fried in oil, a fragrant miracle she was able to conjure up from flour, yeast, water, a bit of salt and sugar. Two kinds of drinks were allowed on the Christmas Eve table: pure spring water, so that the ideas of everyone in the family would always be pure towards others, and uzwar (compote of dried plums, apples, pears and a few viburnum berries) so that the power of the fruit strengthened the blood and soul."
"At the beginning of the supper, Father took the wafer ( in his hands and everyone, standing, said "Our Father" and "Hail Mary", and thanking God for the past year [and] holidays, asked God for blessing for the next holidays and year. Then everyone started eating, starting with the kutia. "
"For the New Year at midnight we always went to church for the thanksgiving service and the Holy Mass to welcome the new year. January 6 - Epiphany, in Podolia – was a second holy evening. After returning from the church, where the priest blessed water, chalk and gold, grandfather would write an inscription on the door with holy chalk, for example, 19 = K + M + B = 86. On that day, there was always kutia for supper. In this way, we sympathized with our Orthodox brothers who were experiencing the Christmas Eve supper."
Excerpts from: Boze Narodzenie na Podolu (Polish Christmas in Podolia) by Nela Szpyczko who interviewed inhabitants of Grodek Podolski. 2004) Tworczow Ludowy Kwartalnik.Nr. 1-4 2005.
Diduch - click on the word and the link which will take you to see traditional and current examples of a diduch.
Sending sincerest wishes to everyone for a blessed Christmas and New Year. May these special days instill hope and bring you joy, love and peace.
Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia!
Веселих Різдвяних свят!
Christmas in the Kresy, the eastern borders of Poland. Part I: Kucja, kucia or kutia
The dish can be spelled in a variety of ways including kutia, kutya, kucya, kucyji but within the old eastern parts of Poland, which at one time incorporated the western parts of what is currently known as the Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, it was known as kucia and kucja
Kucja was a dish of boiled wheat berries mixed with poppy seeds, honey and nuts and, for those who could afford the luxury, raisins. In these regions, whether peasant or noble, kucja was the reigning monarch, the queen of all Christmas eve dishes, the flagship dish of the evening- so much so that Christmas Eve and the Christmas Eve meal itself was often called Kucja.
It is a dish worthy of respect not just for its antiquity but for its symbolic ties to family and ancestral memory. In time now long gone from memory, it always appeared at funerals as a meal for the deceased and also during the winter solstice when kucja was left at on the graves of deceased members of the family. The poppy was considered a symbol of death and sleep, making it a link between the world of the dead and the living. The abundance of seeds was supposed to ensure fertility and prosperity in the coming year.
Wheat berries were considered life giving for within them lay the rebirth of nature. Their seeds were magical, sprouting from the earth again in the spring. Honey is as old as man himself and a symbol of health and plenty and walnuts, with their secret interior, have always been considered a gift from the gods and associated with fertility. In toto, all the elements of the dish were meant to feed their ancestors who were the source of plenty and abundance.
When the church discouraged the leaving of food at gravesites, that particular custom was abandoned but people still opened their doors and windows to encourage their departed to take a seat in their ancestral home during the winter solstice which among Christians became the Christmas Eve meal, the Kucja, in Poland called Wigilia. It was believed that at this time of the year - at the end of the old and the beginning of the new - the souls of the dead came back among the living and it was for them, the deceased, that the dish was made. It was in their honor. And that honor was expressed when, after the sharing of the opłatek, the dish of kucja was eaten first. The head of the household partook of it, solemnly followed by the rest of family members present. After everyone consumed kucja, the rest of the prepared dishes for the evening were served.
War and politics shrunk the old boundaries of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the lost regions came to be known as the eastern borderlands of Poland, the Kresy Wschodnie, or simply, Kresy.
Photo: Tylfomapy.pl The area on orange depicts the areas lost to Poland after WWII and called the eastern borderlands of Poland. They are now part of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
But war, changing boundaries and the migration of people cannot erase cultural memory easily. Kucja still lives on along the eastern border of Poland in the Podlasie and Lublin areas, along the Carpathian Mountains and wherever people from the old boundaries of Poland settled within the boundaries of current Poland. The custom crossed oceans and lives on in the Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belorussian diaspora throughout the world. It’s now more commonly referred to as kutia, but variations on the name still exist. Some make it with barley and some with rice, but that, too, was another method of preparing the dish in those regions. While some still eat the dish first after sharing opłatek, as did their ancestors, the sweetness of it led it to become the closing dish of the Wigilia meal. It’s all in keeping with the saying in those regions that: “There is no Wigilia without kucja.”
Here is a recipe for making kutia from my cookbook. Not difficult but cooking the wheat berries takes some time. The dish is served at room temperature.
Look for Christmas in the Kresy. Part II: Excerpts from diaries and memoirs about Christmas in eastern Poland
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.