‘We have Christmas Eve dinner when the first star appears in the sky’

Christmas Eve is the biggest celebration in Poland, with town and village streets deserted, as people stay at home with their families for the most important celebration of the year.

Fr Janusz Ługowski, Polish chaplain to the Meath diocese and curate in Moynalvey, recalls his childhood Christmases with fondness, but loves to celebrate the Yuletide here in Ireland with his Polish compatriots.

“We do exactly what we would do in Poland,” he explains. “The big celebration is on Christmas Eve.

There will be a new aspect to Christmas for Fr Janusz this year too, as earlier this year, he was appointed as curate to the parish of Moynalvey.

“I am so happy to be working with Irish people this year. I was a bit afraid of what their reaction would be, but it has been great. I'm delighted.

“I am very happy here in Ireland. Irish people and Polish people are very alike and Polish people feel very at home here.

“We have a similar history, culture and we are Catholics,” he says.

Fr Janusz grew up in central Poland near Warsaw in the Diocese of Block.

“There were three generations in our home – my grandparents, my mother and father and my brother and three sisters.

“We celebrated together at Christmas. In all regions of Poland Christmas Eve is the most important dinner of the year and we have 12 different dishes of fish, potatoes and salad, but no meat.

“Dinner is usually at 7or 8m, but it depends on the family. It is often when the first star appears in the sky.”

Fr Janusz explains that his father would lead a prayer before dinner and then the family would break a small piece of bread called Oplatek together and wish each other Happy Christmas before starting dinner around the table.

“One place setting would always be left free in case a visitor we weren't expecting would knock on the door.”

The family would exchange gifts after dinner and there were lots of traditions we would be familiar with in Ireland – Santa coming down the chimney and the Christmas tree.

There was also straw on the table and the girl of the house that drew the shortest straw would be the first to get married.

After the feasting and festivities, the family would get ready for Mass which took place at either 10pm or midnight.

“Poland has a very rich tradition of carol singing, the church would be beautifully decorated and people would all go to the crib to say a prayer.”

Christmas carols are divided into two groups in Poland – Kolenda – beautiful serious hymns usually sung at mass and at home, as well as Pastoralka – more amusing folk songs, many of them aimed at children.

In the past people went from house to house singing carols right throughout the month of January and that tradition is still very much alive in southern Poland to this day.

“On Christmas day, we go to mass again, have another big dinner – we eat meat and visit family and friends and the same on St Stephen's day.”

Fr Janusz studied for the priesthood in Poland and worked in two Parishes before he came of Ireland and the diocese of Meath as Polish chaplain, 12 years ago.

The Polish community here in Ireland, do exactly what they would do at home in Poland.

“There are Christmas Eve dinners, masses , carol services and singing.”

Fr Janusz will be very busy before and during Christmas. There are between 6,000 and 8,000 Polish people in the diocese which stretches from Athlone and Tullamore to Oldcastle, Kells and Laytown and he will also be looking after his Irish flock in Moynalvey.

“Somebody will probably come over from Poland to help,” he explains.

“I don't have much time for dinner or parties over Christmas and Easter, but I will get home to see my family after Christmas.”

He explains that there is a tradition in Poland, where the priest visits the houses and families in the parish after Christmas praying with them and blessing them.

“Here in Ireland, I do the same, but I go to the families that ask me to, and I can spend a little time with them and talk to them,” he explains.

Fr Janusz loves his work as chaplain.

“I am very happy here and I am very grateful to Bishop Michael Smith who asked me to come and to Bishop Tom Deenihan and the priests who are very helpful to me.

“I am so happy working with both the Polish community and with Irish people. I feel at home here.”

- This article first appeared in the Christmas Cheer publication available in shops now and packed with lots of uplifting and nostalgic Christmas content.