Christmas Conversation Class

Go through the materials below to prepare for the class.

Watch the video about American Christmas traditions

Read the mind-map below and make sure you know what the words mean and how to pronounce them. You can check all the words here:

Watch the video about the differences between British and American Christmas

Read the article below that compares Polish and British Christmas Customs

British and Polish Christmas Customs

With the end of year holidays approaching, Barry Tomalin and Anna Maria McKeever spread a little Christmas cheer as they compare Polish and British Christmas and New Year holiday customs. Text by Barry Tomalin and Anna Maria McKeever

It’s September in the United Kingdom, and already the first shops are putting up their Christmas holiday displays, giving new meaning to the slogan: ‘Shop early for Christmas’. The commercial imperative means that the Christmas sales season starts immediately after everyone has gone back to work after the summer holidays. Christmas is one of the major commercial festivals as everyone builds up to buying cards, decorations, presents and food and drink for the festive season. The British are becoming ever more inventive in their ways of ‘selling’ Christmas. We now have a Christmas exhibition at one of our major London exhibition centres and have even adopted the Christmas market from Germany, where, as we will see, many our Christmas customs originate. The Christmas rush really starts in early November, when London’s two central shopping streets, Oxford Street and Regent Street, have their festive street lights switched on, usually by a minor celebrity, and crowds still flock to do their Christmas shopping and see the lights. This is now copied by High Streets all over the British Isles. “But what ever happened to Christmas as a religious celebration”, we hear you ask? Well, it was, in a sense, swamped in the commercial rush but it’s still in there. The British celebrateChristmas on the 25th of December (the traditional date for the birth of Christ), and the following day, Boxing Day, the 26th of December, is also a public holiday. On Christmas Eve, the 24th of December, shops usually close early in order to allow staff to prepare for the Christmas holiday.Shops open again on the 27th of December, and this is usually when ‘the January sales’ start, and continue throughout January and February. Everything stops again for New Year’s Eve, on the 31st of December, and another public holiday on the 1st of January. Scotland is, however, different. The main holiday there is not Christmas but New Year’s Day, known as Hogmanay in Scotland; and in Scotland, both the 1st and 2nd of January are public holidays. In Poland, by comparison, September is still very much a summer holiday period, and the Christmas festive season is a long way off. Once All Saints Day on the 1st of November (a public and religious holiday in Poland) is over, Christmas decorations start appearing gradually in the shops and shopping centres and the Christmas promotions are on their way!

However, Poland is a Catholic country, and the Advent period is a quiet time, traditionally connected with the religious aspect of preparations for Christmas. At the end of November or beginning of December, people usually avoid organising or attending balls, huge parties or even weddings, and November, in particular, is traditionally regarded as an unlucky month in which to get married. This is part of a more widespread superstition that one should not marry in month which does not contain the letter ‘r’: in this case the name of the month is ‘listopad’ in Polish. By the end of November, commercialisation is slowly taking over, and large Christmas shopping centres start bursting with customers. Luckily, Poland still is one of those countries in Europe in which the religious aspect of the Christmas period is an important factor and creates an unforgettable atmosphere running up to one of the most important days in the whole year for all Poles regardless of their religious beliefs: Christmas Eve, on the 24th of December.

24 Shopping Days to Christmas

In the United Kingdom, children start to open their Advent calendars. Advent is the month of preparation for the Christmas festival and is marked by cards with little windows with ‘Christmassy’ pictures, and you open one every day until the big day itself. You start buying up your Christmas cards and hope that there won’t be a postal strike. The Post Office starts telling you the final date on which you can post your cards in order to ensure that they arrive in time for Christmas. People start stocking up the presents and hiding them in cupboards away from the children, who are becoming really clever at working out exactly what they are getting without actually opening the box. Thrifty shoppers have already ordered the traditional Christmas meal. Roast turkey is the most popular dish, served with chipolata sausages, stuffing and bacon, and garnished with bread sauce, cranberry sauce and, sometimes, chestnuts. Parents dust off their Christmas cookbooks. The most popular television chef at Christmas is probably Delia Smith, known to one and all as ‘Delia’. The vegetables, depending on individual taste, often include roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and the main course is followed by a plum pudding, known as Christmas pudding. In Poland, the 6th of December is a special day for Polish children, as this is the day on which St Nicholas – not to be confused with Father Christmas - visits children’s bedrooms at night to leave presents. On the evening before, all Polish children clean their shoes and place them neatly in rows (usually next to their beds) for St Nicholas to come at night when they are asleep and to stuff the shoes with sweets, put advent calendars next to them and leave small presents. As parents point put each year, naughty children receive nothing! Parents order the sweets and little presents well in advance – the tricky bit is for St Nicholas to place them in the children’s shoes without waking them up! At the beginning of December people usually start buying Christmas cards, although the younger generation sometimes prefer to send them in an electronic format. Sending Christmas cards is a very important custom in Poland and an opportunity to write letters to relatives and friends.

Twelve Shopping Days to Christmas

Visit a major station or public area in the United Kingdom, and you will find a group of people standing there singing Christmas carols and religious Christmas songs, and collecting money for charity. You may also hear kids singing carols outside your door. When the knock on your door comes, they’re collecting money for presents! Meanwhile in Poland, it is time to find out from members of the family the kind of present they would like and also time for Polish children to write letters to Father Christmas with a special list of presents they hope to receive. The list of presents is usually accompanied by pictures, and in some cases drawings which help Father Christmas to get the right colour or size. Needless to say the lists are always very long! Adults start their hunting trips to shops and shopping centres to buy presents.Children count their pocket money to determine how much they can spend on presents for different members of the family.

Ten Shopping Days to Christmas

It’s tree time in the United Kingdom. For weeks, the garden centres and pavements in some towns have been littered with pine trees of various sizes to buy, bring indoors and decorate as Christmas trees, another 19th century German import. The decorations are going up. Trees are decorated with coloured glass balls and ‘fairy’ lights, and the walls are adorned with paper chains and other decorations. Some people even illuminate the outsides of their houses – you can sometimes see them from the air as you fly in to London airport! Holly is a popular decoration, as is a sprig of mistletoe over the door. Kissing someone under the mistletoe brings your relationship luck. Every shelf, every bookcase, every flat space begins to fill up with Christmas cards sent by family and friends. Blank spaces with no cards can induce serious bouts of anxiety and depression, “No one loves me!” In Poland, Christmas trees for sale are slowly appearing on the streets: it is time to buy Christmas decorations but not a Christmas tree as yet - Polish people usually buy them a day or two before Christmas Eve. Time for children to entertain themselves and to make some Christmas decorations at home. Some of these are done at schools as part of the preparation for the festive season. Christmas cards are sent and on their way to relatives and friends, and now it’s time to rush out and start buying food.

Two Shopping Days to Christmas

“Oh, my God, we forgot to get something for Gran!” Shopping in the United Kingdom reaches a frenzy as those last minute purchases are made. Stealthily, the SALE notices are beginning to go up, as stores let you know that the January sales season is almost on us.And then suddenly, magically, at about 4pm, the shops close and Britain breathes. It’s Christmas and for an evening, Christmas Eve; it’s quite lovely, peaceful and quiet, as people go to their families for the festive day. Poland experiences the last frantic shopping expeditions and then it’s time to wrap up the presents and hide them until Christmas Eve. Time for the famous traditional Polish Christmas cooking to begin; this very often involves three different generations of a family cooking together in one kitchen – often using recipes passed down from generation to generation, including cooking, boiling, frying and baking. Time to buy a traditional Polish dish for Christmas – a carp (usually alive and kept alive until a few hours before Christmas evening supper). There was recently a widespread campaign in Poland to dispose of this unnecessary habit of causing suffering to carp, but judging by Polish attachment to tradition, things are not going to change quickly.

Christmas Eve

In the United Kingdom, many families go to midnight mass at their local churches, but anyone with children has put the kids to bed and place a Christmas stocking at the end of the bed or on the mantelpiece above the fireplace for Santa Claus to leave his presents for the children. Santa arrives in his sleigh, pulled by four reindeer and comes down the chimney to leave the presents. How he does this and still gets back to Lapland by dawn is one of the grown-ups’ best kept secrets!One of the most important days of the year in Poland, if not the most important! A family and religious day at the same time. Hectic preparations start early in the morning, when the Christmas tree is put up by the adults and decorated by the children, and it is time to make the famous live carp into a dish. Polish families eat Christmas Eve supper quite early, some of them starting as early as 5pm. Children often look for the first star to appear on the sky, which usually signals the time to sit around the table for the supper. There is a wafer placed in the centre of the Christmas table, from which every family member takes a part and goes around the table to wish other members of the family Happy Christmas. There is a very special custom in Poland: the lady of the house always puts an additional plate on the table, should somebody who is alone and without a supper knock at the door and unexpectedly join the family. Traditionally, there should be twelve dishes on the table, all of them, in theory, part of a fast – there is beetroot, mushroom or fish soup to start with, different kinds of fish, sauerkraut, mushrooms and various dumplings, and the traditional drink is a compote made from dried fruit. The are a few popular customs associated with the Polish Christmas Eve, one being to count the number of people sitting at the table; an even number will bring prosperity and health to the house, but an odd number could mean that somebody in the family circle might die next year. In some households people still put a handful of hay under the tablecloth in the centre of the table, which invokes Christ being born in a stable. After supper, families who have ‘booked’ Father Christmas in advance (it could be a friendly neighbour) wait for him to come, and before giving out the presents, he usually asks the children if they were good and might ask them to sing a carol. In some cases, the parents or other adults simply place presents under the Christmas tree after supper, and the next few hours are usually spent enjoying unwrapping the presents, singing Christmas carols and attending midnight mass.

25th of December

Thus begin what is traditionally known in the United Kingdom as the twelve days of Christmas, which end on January 6th, the Christian feast of the Epiphany. The children have been up since dawn opening stockings and enjoying the presents Santa has left them. The turkey is in the oven (‘Delia’ has given precise timings), and the family is off to church or wherever it is they go. Fewer than 10% of British people go to church regularly, and the peak attendance is at Christmas and Easter. Then it’s time to eat. People sit down to Christmas dinner at different times of the day, but there’s one Christmas tradition we haven’t mentioned – crackers. These are paper tubes which two people hold, one at each end, and pull. There is a snap as the cracker inside explodes, and whoever has the longest bit of the tube wins the prize. Don’t get excited though - the prize is a paper hat which you are expected to wear, a small present (the quality depending on the cost of the crackers) and a riddle or a joke (always bad!). Example: “When is the sun like a jelly? When it sets.” People read these out to groans all round. Finished eating? No, you haven’t. Christmas tea follows with a Christmas cake, along with a fruit cake decorated with marzipan and icing sugar. But what about the presents, we hear you ask? Well, it’s a matter for negotiation, but in our family all of the presents are placed under the Christmas tree and we give them out and open them around the tree after lunch. In Poland, everyone gets up rather late after the exciting day before, which included midnight mass. Time to start eating. Christmas breakfast followed by Christmas dinner (at lunchtime). Families usually arrange well in advance who is visiting whom, as it’s a time for more relatives to arrive to give more presents, to watch television together and to eat, eat and eat! Polish families usually eat chicken with potatoes and various vegetables in addition to the famous bigos (traditional Polish hunter’s stew) and cakes: cheese cake, poppy cake and ginger biscuits are the most popular. Polish people traditionally go to mass in the morning or before lunchtime.

Boxing Day – 26th of December

People need Boxing Day, the holiday on the 26th of December to recover. Boxing Day was traditionally the day for giving Christmas presents or boxes but nowadays it’s mainly devoted to sleeping late to get over the excesses of the previous day. In Poland however, it is another day of visiting different family members or perhaps hosting another dinner – which means more Christmas food on the table! Another day to go to church and attend mass. Polish churches are beautifully decorated inside, with Christmas trees and Christmas lights, and are also famous for nativity scenes during the daytime on Christmas Eve. Many families visit their parish churches specifically to look at the nativity scenes, and some people even travel to town centres to visit a few churches to compare them.

New Year’s Eve

For most of us in the United Kingdom, it’s parties, and the toasting of a ‘Happy New Year’ as the clock chimes twelve, and often gathering in a circle to sing a traditional song, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. For the Scots, however, it’s the celebration. As the clock chimes midnight, many Scots go ‘first footing’. To bring good luck to the house ‘a tall dark man’ should place his foot over the threshold of the house as soon as possible after midnight, carrying a piece of coal, some shortbread, salt, a black bun and a ‘wee dram,’ which is a small glass of whisky.As in Britain, parties and New Year celebrations are very popular in Poland. With ladies spending time at hairdressers and spa centres preparing for a big night, there is last minute shopping for fireworks, and more cooking and baking, to celebrate New Year with a big bang

The Epiphany - 6th of January

Unlike many of their European neighbours, the British do not celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men brought gifts to the infant Jesus Christ. Poland, as a Catholic country however, celebrates the 6th of January, with Christmas trees and decorations remaining; in some cases, if you lucky enough, your Christmas tree can survive until the end of January. In Britain, there is one interesting superstition. If you haven’t taken your tree and decorations down by ‘Twelfth Night’, as it is known, it is a sign of bad luck. You have been warned!