What did Christmas in Wrocław look and sound like?
The answer to this question comes from the staff of the University Library. You usually know them as the ones who lend you books, help you fill in a lending form or hiss meaningfully when you chat in the reading room. This time they are quite noisy.
They prepared a surprise – they gathered the most interesting information on what people ate, drank and how they enjoyed themselves at Christmas in the German city of Breslau. Eggplant soup? Sure. Plus other delicacies. Apart from historical information and digitised archive materials, the librarians also show off their hidden talents – they are excellent singers. How? They will present you with several carols in their performance.
Christmas market, presents, carp, gingerbread and a Christmas tree – that is Christmas in the old Wrocław
At the end of November, like every year, the Christmas shops appeared on the market square – it is a sign that Christmas is getting closer. It is time to think about presents for your loved ones, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas menu. Preparations for Christmas absorb many of us and many of us fall into the clutches of a shopping frenzy. The tradition of preparing for Christmas as we know it today dates back to the second half of the 18th century. Back then, the Christmas market – known as Kindelmarkt – was held in the market square on 13 December, and the inhabitants used to satisfy most of their Christmas-related needs while shopping under the city hall. During this time, the Christmas tree became widespread along the Oder, and Christmas decorations were among the essential articles of the Christmas market. In the 19th century, fir trees from Galicia and the Kłodzko Valley as well as the Karkonosze Mountains were the most prized in town. When the carp was already swimming in the log at home and the presents were already packed, poppy seeds were boiling in the pots and gingerbreads, which were the traditional scent of Christmas in the old Wrocław, landed on the platters.
The Christmas Eve supper was the most important day of the year. Catholics were obliged to fast, whereas Protestants were not. There was no “magic” number of Christmas Eve dishes – for some, it was 6, for others 7, 8, 9 or 12 – everything depended on a family tradition. However, regardless of the confession, the whole city would begin this only feast of the year with poppy seed dumplings, a specialty prepared from layers of bread dipped in sweet milk and layered with poppy seeds. The most popular soups were beer soup, bread soup, mushroom soup and borscht. In some families, roe soup was served. Catholics usually prepared a carp in Polish sauce for Christmas Eve, while Protestants prepared a carp in Lutheran broth. The broth was cooked in dark beer with sugar, bay leaf, a handful of sultanas, onions, salt and lemon. Proud Henry, a sausage similar to the Polish white sausage, was often served baked with onions and measured in elbows. Christmas Eve tables would not be complete without sauerkraut, peas and mushrooms, cooked in different variations and with various toppings. There were also compote and cakes, including gingerbread cakes, apple cakes, poppy seed cakes, yeast cake with crumble topping, and Dresden Christmas cake.
Christmas Eve was also a memorable holiday for children. Because of the presents. In the first half of the 19th century, it became common for children to write their letters asking Jesus for presents so that he would bring them. Waiting for the fulfillment, they would gaze at the windows in the evenings, as it was believed that a glint in the window was a sign from the angel that the child had been good and would get presents. Interestingly, in old Wrocław, presents were not put under the Christmas tree but on the table – first after Christmas Midnight Mass and then right after the Christmas dinner. The second half of the century established the custom of children writing so-called ‘wish lists’, from which their parents would choose the one most desirable present. According to the old rules, Christmas presents were a surprise from parents and other family members to reward children for their behaviour and diligence in school. The gift-giving St. Nicholas appeared in the Christmas culture of Wrocław at the end of the 19th century. Before that, he brought presents only on 6 December, usually putting them in socks or shoes that were placed outside the room door.
On the first day of Christmas, most people in Wrocław would eat a dish called “Silesian heaven in a mouth” at lunchtime, i.e. smoked bacon stewed in dried fruit, served with dumplings. Wherever there was no such speciality, poultry in any form or game reigned supreme, with hare at the top, served with boiled potatoes and sauerkraut stew. The tables were also dominated by cakes and marzipans, which were accompanied by coffee and wine. It was the custom in Wrocław to decorate the table with a bouquet of flowers. Bourgeois families, on the other hand, if they did not dine at home, would go out to dinner in a larger group to renowned restaurants. A long-standing custom in the city was the St Stephen’s balls held in many restaurants. They became less prevalent in the city in the second half of the 19th century but survived in suburban establishments until the outbreak of the First World War.
Dear academic teachers, students, and employees of the University of Wrocław. Christmas is just around the corner. So we would like to leave the pre-Christmas frenzy behind for a moment and focus on you. We wish that the much-awaited Christmas time brings you peace of heart, joy and solace. May Christmas, despite the pandemic, not lose its spirit of love, closeness and support. May all that is far away become close, and may the coming year be full of happy days worth remembering. That is what we wish for ourselves and for you. Merry Christmas!
Text: BUWR employee Grzegorz Sobel
Greetings: BUWR employee Katarzyna Kwaśniak