In Poland, Advent is a time of fasting and prayer, of spiritual preparation for Christmas. The four weeks of waiting for the Nativity are not a time for parties, decorating, and shopping like in the United States. In Poland, people stay indoors and the long evenings are spent making handmade decorations for the Christmas tree out of straw, paper, and foodstuffs like nuts and grains. It is also a time for making handmade gifts, baking Christmas cookies, and preparing other delicacies for the upcoming holidays. Special early-morning masses called "roraty" are celebrated, starting when it is still dark out, with churchgoers lighting candles at different times during the mass, gradually bringing light to the day and symbolizing the upcoming Nativity of Christ, a miracle that brought light and salvation to the world.

St. Nicholas Day

December 6th, St. Nicholas day - Dzien Swietego Mikolaja - brings a slight reprieve to the gray winter days, especially to children, who feel that Christmas is still so far away. Someone in the family was selected to represent St. Nicholas and he was often driven in a sleigh to the homes in a Polish village. He was dressed in a long white or red robe, wearing a tall headpiece much like a bishop's miter, a long white flowing beard, and in his hand he held a shepherd's staff. He rebuked the naughty children and praised the nice ones, listening to them as they recited their catechism and prayers. Then he passed around heart-shaped pierniki (gingerbread cookies), holy pictures, and big red apples, which he produced magically from under his cloak. When St. Nicholas could not make the visit personally, his gifts were placed under the children's pillows during the night. The tradition continues today, and Polish children receive gifts on December 6th as well as on December 24th.

Roraty

One of the most beautiful traditions of preparing for Christmas in Poland is a mass called "roraty," that is only celebrated during Advent. The mass begins before sunrise, in complete darkness. The word "roraty" comes from the first words of the introit, the prayer that begins the mass, which are "Rorate coeli" in Latin, meaning "Heaven, drop the morning dew," and which asks for blessings on the new day that is about to begin.

In no other country is this mass celebrated as solemnly and as beautifully as in Poland. The service symbolizes readiness and vigilance in anticipation of Christ's coming. People who participate in the service bring torches or candles with them, which are lit at certain times during the mass, gradually dispelling the darkness.

This service has a very special atmosphere since it starts in total darkness, before sunrise, and as daybreak slowly comes, candles are lit at the altar and in the hands of the people participating in the service. As the mass comes to an end, the sun has risen and the world is bathed in light, symbolizing the nativity of Christ which brought light and redemption to the world. Roraty have been celebrated in Poland since the 12th century and continue to be celebrated in cities and villages throughout the country to this day.

Szopki Krakowskie

Krakow, the historic royal city of Poland and former capital, celebrates Advent in a very special way. On the first Sunday of Advent, the beautiful city square "Rynek" gets decorated with fir boughs, garlands, Christmas trees, and twinkling lights. Booths are set up for the Christmas Market and on the first Thursday in December, the square turns into an art competition, keeping alive a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The competition for the most beautiful Krakow Nativity Crib or " Szopka Krakowska" is sponsored every year by the Historical Museum of Krakow.

The szopki are richly ornamented, multi-layered, and constructed from colored paper, silver and gold foil, cardboard, bits of plastic, and faux jewels. Actual sizes of the competition nativities range in size from small enough to fit inside a matchbox to several meters high. In keeping with tradition, Krakow szopka-makers often incorporate characters from Krakow history and legends in their creations, such as Queen Wanda, the Dragon of Wawel, and the famed Lajkonik. Each crèche is a miniature version of Krakow, rendered in fairy-tale colors, intricate and joyful, and often imbued with humor. This art form dates back back to medieval times and the competition for the most beautiful Krakow szopka was reinstated in 1937, discontinued during the War years, and reopened again in 1946.

The open-air Christmas market is the backdrop for the competition and there are many booths set up that sell Christmas ornaments and gifts, beads, wooden toys, pottery, lace, nativity scenes, and other handmade gifts. The smell of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine fills the air as lights twinkle illuminating the beautiful buildings and monuments on the Square. It is one of the most beautiful city centers in all of Europe, in every season of the year!