Coming from a Polish catholic background, the Christmas feast for me is highly a ritualistic and sacred celebration that takes place on Christmas Eve. Not being a practicing catholic myself, the rituals I observe over Christmas are there to uphold a sense of tradition, cultural identity and family unity. As an immigrant from Poland to Australia, many of the traditions I observe have been modified however due to my cultural and climatic displacement. It is no longer feasible to wait for the first star to appear before we sit down to eat as day light savings leaves us hungry well before the night sky appears. No longer in the depths of winter, but more often than not, in the middle of a heat wave, our food tends to be lighter, with more dishes served cold rather than hot. However, the sense of reverence, heightened spirituality and sense of unity is retained regardless.
Our Christmas feast always begins with the sharing of ‘Oplatek’ a thin wafer “holy bread” which is broken amongst each other and shared alongside words of warmth, wishes, and love.
Traditionally we then sit down to a multi course feast that carries on for hours into the night. It is expected that even if you don’t particularly like a certain dish, or are completely stuffed, all dishes must be sampled.
Hay is placed under the table cloth of each person’s plate, and at some point in the evening, usually between courses, each guest blindly takes hold of a piece of hay from under their plate and pulls it out. The person with the longest piece is considered ‘luckiest’.
A spare place at the table is always set for an unexpected, unannounced guest or stranger.
Food preparation begins days in advance, with many of the dishes being fish based, such as whole baked fish, various forms of herring, fish in aspic and other varieties of warm and cold fish dishes.
Carp is traditionally eaten over Christmas (though we don’t tend to eat it much in my family). It is often bought live and kept in the family bathtub to be tended to and fattened up for Christmas. There are many stories told where the Christmas carp never meets it’s fate as the family grows too attached to their temporary house pet and can’t find the heart to kill it. For those carp that do make it to the table, a few of its scales are retained as lucky talismans and placed in one’s wallet for good fortune.
Fish is central to my cultural and culinary identity, especially at Christmas time. The neckpiece I have created in response to the idea of the Christmas FEAST is created from fish scales sourced from a local fishmonger. Washed and dried, they have then been carefully stitched onto cloth, one by one, a ritual unto itself.
The piece is a celebration of my traditions and rituals observed on Christmas Eve. It is also an offering to others, a sharing in the potency and significance of the celebratory feast, the gathering of loved ones and the unique rituals observed across all cultures.