Today in Poland, children wake up to presents from St. Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj). I am writing about this particular country because I am a native of it and have only been living in the U.S for 8 years. I figured I would talk about two aspects of Advent and Christmas that are near & dear to me: tradition and religion.
Growing up, the best time of the year (right after summer vacation, of course) was always the whole month of December. I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family and it had always been evident in how we celebrated holidays. And trust me we, kids had a lot of fun despite what some might think when 'devout Catholic' is mentioned. Anyway, here's the layout of what we did during the advent.
It all begins on November 30th when we celebrate the St. Andrew's day (Andrzejki - un'djeykee). It is the last day before the advent and the last day before Christmas to dance, drink (yes, adults have some crazy parties then), fool around and just be simply crazy. There is also a lot of pagan mystique in a form of fortune-telling, esp. regarding love, marriage and relationships (it's no surprise that pagan practices are used in Catholic traditions and to be honest with you I, together with other children, had always known that Polish tradition had a lot of pagan elements in it from the times before we had become a Christian country). For instance, people melt wax and pour it into cold water to see the shadows the melted wax makes on the walls - different shapes mean different things for the future and a lot of times it's just fun trying to figure out what your future holds. Anyway, I am digressing. St. Andrew's day, or rather night, is the time of celebration and fun because on December 1st the advent begins and lasts for 24 days, until first day of Christmas (the strike of midnight to be precise). Advent is the time of calm, quiet days when we would spend a lot of time praying and anticipating the birth of Jesus. Admittedly, it may seem a little strict for people who have never practiced it but it really wasn't overly so for us kids. We couldn't play any loud music, there were no parties, no dancing, no major celebrations such as weddings, christenings and such. It sometimes did seem a little tough but it made the celebration of Christmas that much more festive and happier.
The only little break for children is December 6th, Mikołajki (meekowaykee) - St. Nicholas' Day. This is the day (more specifically night of Dec. 5 & 6) when Santa Claus comes to children and leaves them presents under pillows, under beds or somewhere hidden. I remember this day to be tons of fun even though we didn't really get crazy gifts kids do nowadays (no Wii's, laptop computers and such). But as children we were on our best behavior for about three months prior to the St. Nicholas day because we truly believed that otherwise we would get coal or a rod instead of a present.
Today I am a mom, I live in a different country, different culture and I do not celebrate Mikołajki. My daughter is fully Americanized and even though she does speak Polish and I know she would love to get gifts twice this month, the whole thing just wouldn't have the same charm mainly because we (I mean my closest family) are not such orthodox Catholics. We do continue the Christmas Eve tradition though but I will talk about this one in another post (on Dec. 24).