PAWTUCKET — With both she and her husband being of Polish heritage, it was always natural for Jean Babiec to celebrate Christmas Eve with a “Wigilia” meatless menu. She made sure to purchase the “oplatek” and always set the dinner table with a pure white tablecloth and one extra place setting, with some pieces of hay placed under it.
The family would attend midnight mass at St. Joseph's Church in Central Falls. Babiec and her husband, Frank, would then encourage their two children, Daniel and Cheryl, to look out the window and watch for the first star. According to tradition, the sighting of the star or “gwiazdka” is in remembrance of the star of Bethlehem and the signal for the celebration to begin.
The family and whatever other relatives and friends were in attendance would break off pieces of the oplatek, a thin wafer of unleavened dough that is stamped with a religious image. These would be shared and eaten as a symbol of unity and good cheer. There would always be Jean's barley soup, meatless pierogis, and prune rolls, and the children would be allowed to open one gift. The rest of the gifts would wait for Christmas morning.
“In Poland, there would be a lot of singing of carols and the people would go around and have parades on Christmas Eve, but you need a big family to do that. My family was small,”said Babiec. Still, she held firm to the important Polish customs that she hoped her children would adopt and carry on.
For example, Babiec noted that the white tablecloth is a symbol of Mary's purity and the scattering of hay underneath stands for the stable where Jesus was born. The empty place setting is thought to represent either the Christ Child or the memory of a departed loved one. Other traditional Wigilia foods include clear red beet or mushroom soup, fried or broiled fish, mushroom cabbage rolls, sauerkraut with mushrooms or peas, and noodles with poppyseeds.
Jean and Frank Babiec, both longtime Pawtucket residents, organized the city's Polish flag-raising ceremony at Pawtucket City Hall 25 years ago. That event and a month-long display of Polish cultural artifacts still occur annually, thanks to Jean and her daughter Cheryl.
Although Jean and Frank were both born in the United States, they were raised in households where the Polish language, traditions and customs remained strong. The couple sought to enjoy their heritage and share it with others. The two loved going polka dancing and were involved in local Polish organizations. They also traveled to Poland several times to visit with relatives, and always brought back handcrafted items to decorate their Pawtucket home.
Babiec noted that there was once a large Polish population in and around Central Falls and Pawtucket that was active in St. Joseph's Church and the local Polish clubs and organizations. Polish people would also come from Attleboro, South Attleboro, and other surrounding communities to take part in various activities and events. She laments, however, that the younger generation is not that interested in preserving the cultural traditions.
With her husband now gone and her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren living in Virginia, it's now just Jean and Cheryl keeping the Polish Christmas traditions alive. Yet, they are both happy to do so, and particularly Cheryl, who elaborately decorates her Rosemont Avenue home to showcase her extensive collection of Polish ornaments and folk art.
A huge, live spruce dominates Cheryl Babiec's front parlor, its branches covered with tufts of white cotton to resemble snow and ropes of clear garland that glistens like icicles. Hanging on the tree are a beloved collection of Christmas ornaments, some of delicately handpainted glass and others crafted from straw, paper, woodshavings, tin and other more commonplace materials.
There are straw stars and wooden crosses, birds made of rolled wood shavings, figurines of Polish dancers and a Polish flag. Among the sparkling glass ornaments are jeweled eggs, an elaborate rooster and red-dotted mushroom—all culturally symbolic, along with newer creations from modern-day artist Christopher Radko, who has recreated many early 20th century Polish designs.
Many of the ornaments belonged to Jean and others were purchased by Cheryl or were given to her as gifts from friends who visited Poland. Other decorations that she brings out every year include a “szopka,” an intricate, castle-like creche fashioned from colored tin foil, and a simpler Polish creche crafted of thinly carved wood that she has had since childhood. These items are flanked by a curio cabinet full of antique dolls, tiny keepsake boxes, painted wooden eggs, decorative plates and other items reflecting Polish culture and traditions.
Jean, Frank, and Cheryl were all involved in the Polish Subcommittee of the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, and took part in a cultural Christmas tree-decorating project that was held for many years at the Rhode Island State House. Organized by then-First Lady Marjory Sundlun, wife of the late Governor Bruce Sundlun, the annual event featured three floors of evergreens decorated according to different countries and cultural themes. The two women made sure that Poland was well represented. “This was an annual event for many years. And they were called 'Christmas' trees,” noted Jean, referring to the recent controversy that has erupted over the State House tree.
Cheryl still keeps a bagful of the handmade ornaments that used to adorn the State House Polish tree. Many were crafted in her living room by members of the Polish Subcommittee. Keeping true to tradition, the committee members used colored paper and foil, pieces of straw, wooden beads and other simple materials to make the ornaments. “The Polish people would just use things they could find around the farm. They didn't have decorations that were glitzy,” noted Cheryl Babiec. A teacher at the Cunningham Elementary School, she sometimes has her students make some of the Polish-style paper ornaments in class.
As it has for decades, Christmas Eve for the Babiecs still means midnight mass at St. Joseph's Church, and a Wigilia feast enjoyed with close friends who share their Polish roots and appreciation of the heritage. Jean plans on making her traditional barley soup, and looks forward to the pickled herring and other meatless delights.
There will be trays of Polish cookies to enjoy and the oplatek will be shared. And in front of one empty chair at the dinner table, welcoming strands of hay will assuredly be found under a crisp white tablecloth topped by a place setting for a very special guest.