Cultural Musings

My American parents at a Polish Christmas. What I’m nervous about. 

Christmas is a time for family and my parents are coming to Poland for the holidays for the first time ever. It’s also their first time in Poland in winter – remember they’re Floridians – but their third time in Poland overall. We’re really looking forward to having them here (and in our house for the first time) so they can experience a Polish (and maybe a white) Christmas. We’re going to share Christmas Eve and the first day of Christmas (also called Christmas day in America) with my husband’s family, only one of whom speaks English. Want to come help translate?? 🙂 Oh, the joys of a binational family. 

Luckily, my parents and parents-in-law have met before. And actually it went really well. We just translated for them and they basically spoke to each other without much issue. Both sides seemed to enjoy it and all was ok. I’m sure it will be the same this Christmas but I have some worries. What exactly?

Winter. Generally it’s not the best time to visit Poland because the weather is pretty abysmal most of the time. I’m sure my parents are crossing their fingers that it’s bright and sunny and not white and frosty. I believe they have coats but good enough for full-blown winter? Highly unlikely. Do they own winter boots? Of course not because even if it’s cold in Florida, there’s never ice or snow. So it’s going to be fun for them.

The food. This is kind of the most important thing on Christmas, isn’t it? I think the food is good but you’re expected to try everything, at least it’s polite, but I’m not sure how that’s gonna go down. My parents are pretty picky (Sorry mom, don’t be upset. You know it’s true. love you!), especially when it comes to new food or things that look a little strange. For Americans, nearly the entire Christmas menu is a bit strange looking – at least in our family. Siemieniotka? Moczka? Cabbage with mushrooms (Americans don’t really eat it)? Makówki (again, poppy seeds aren’t the most popular)? Compote z suszu? Forget it.

Opłatki. This is kinda awkward for everyone, isn’t it? I just say the same thing to everyone but when you don’t understand the wishes that someone tells you and have no idea what to say in return, well that’s the height of discomfort. This year actually will probably be better for me cause I won’t be the most confused person at the party. What a relief!

Time. Typically our Polish family meets each day of Christmas and sits together for around 6-7 hours. You know what we do cause you probably do the same. We eat, talk, eat more, talk more, listen to Christmas music, maybe watch something on TV… but mostly we just talk. It’s hard to talk when most people present don’t speak your language, so that’s one thing. I can translate but it’s not the same level of comfort. You can’t listen to other people’s conversations and add something, you either have to start your own conversations or just sit there. Trust me, I know that pain well. In addition to that, my family isn’t the type to sit for hours and hours at the table together. I think I’ll recommend turning the TV on this year.

Anyway, I know despite those little things, it’s super cool that our families are willing to spend time together and that they have the chance to meet and get to know each other a bit – even if they can’t speak to each other directly. And I’m sure everything will turn out better than expected. Wish us luck!

Has anyone else ever had a similar situation? How did you manage?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year you guys! Wesolych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!!

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  • Reply Zefiryn 18 December 2016 at 22:44

    I would consider getting some board game to the party. There are a lot of easy to understand games that does not require that all use the same language and it can give a lot of fun. Look into family games like Qwirkle or Splendor. There is still enough time to borrow one (yes, board game shops often allow borrowing games) or buy one before the Christmas.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 19 December 2016 at 07:22

      Hah that is a fantastic idea! We usually play monopoly or something around the holidays but yeah something physical seems like a better idea or something you need to do quickly before tie runs out. I will definitely figure something out! Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply Anna 18 December 2016 at 22:53

    Board games are THE BEST idea ever. Out of the top of my head – ticket to ride, definitely don’t need no language knowledge… Carcassonne, pandemic… SABOTEUR! Boy oh boy you’re gonna have so much fun 😉 Oh and you should check out renting possibilities, not sure how easy it is to rent a game in smaller town, but there’s still time to find some place like that in a nearby city or sth 🙂 Happy Holidays!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 19 December 2016 at 07:23

      Anna – happy holidays to you too! Yeah I really like this idea. We have to try!

  • Reply Magdalena 18 December 2016 at 23:26

    I can comfort you. Both my and my husband’s parents speak the same language- it doesn’t help them understand each other. :)) Thanks God they don’t spend Christmas together . Wish you luck!?

  • Reply Donut 19 December 2016 at 01:43

    You know what always works for my family? Photos. That’s a good idea especially in this case cause you don’t need too much language skills. My dad takes loads of them, so when we finally manage to get together at Christmas we go through the past year in pictures (we plug the usb into the TV but traditional photo albums are even better). And if you’ve already seen recent photos, try childhood ones. American Christmas vs Polish Christmas twenty years ago, that’s a great conversation starter 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 19 December 2016 at 07:21

      Ania – Yeah I know exactly what you mean. We did the same thing last time they met and it was really cool cause there’s a lot you can say with photos when you can’t actually speak so that’s a great idea. I didn’t think about childhood photos! That’s golden. We gotta do that 🙂

  • Reply Gosia 19 December 2016 at 07:06

    Hi, I smiled a lot reading it! Trust me it always could be worse! 😉 I am with portuguese guy, we communicate in english (still but in few years I plan to manage speak portuguese or french as we live in Switzerland) and our parents alread met once and few times with us on Skype (each Christmas or Eastern – as we don’t spend it together yet) and any of them can speak other language then their mother tongue, so when they “talk” it looks like this: my parents say sth, I say it in english to my bf, he translates it to portuguese <3 sounds horrible and it is, but still our dads behaved like they were best friends after few hours together 😀 so anything is possible!
    I actually look forward to the day when we will be able to finally spend Christmas together and I will show them our polish tradition 🙂
    Good luck! and Wesołych Świat :)))

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 19 December 2016 at 07:20

      Gosia – so both your parents sound really cool and easy-going! Our parents are the same so we’re lucky in that way I think. Our parents also seemed to like each other a lot despite the language barrier 🙂 Well your families don’t live too far from each other so it should be possible to meet for Christmas, right?? 🙂

  • Reply Jem 19 December 2016 at 15:43

    When I lived in Poland, I was a student and never came back to the US for the holidays due to the expense, etc. Luckily I had great friends with families who welcomed me into their homes. I have many great memories of these times and miss a lot of the Polish Christmas traditions. Although the awkwardness of the oplatek I definitely don’t miss, especially with those people you don’t even know!

    My last year there (16 years ago!), my whole family came and we spent the Wigilia dinner with the family of a friend who had visited my family for a few weeks the previous summer. It was fairly awkward, but it is a great memory for both my family and hers. I’m sure it will go by faster than you expect and will be a great memory to share in years to come! If your families drink, don’t forget that vodka always warms the body and the atmosphere 😉

  • Reply Piotr 19 December 2016 at 16:42

    Leah, don`t worry-everything will be fine, I`m sure ;-). A good sense of humour and being easy going definitely help break the ice. I have never been in a such situation but I can imagine being a translator must be a struggle. I know that elderly people may not know English because they had been forced into learning Russian before. But the young girls and boys (if there are any of them in your family) ? I have to admit I`m shocked. Or are they studying German in the Silesia? Have you ever tried “talk” to each other by drawing something on the paper sheet? An image language is rather universal and easy to understand. If we say about “board” games-do you remember Twister? I didn`t play it but I heard it was really funny. You move on your knees and a risk of losing your foot/balance is pretty high. Lot of laugh guaranteed so it should suit you and your relatives. By the way, sorry for my too personal questions-you needn`t answer them if don`t want to. Wesołych Świąt i wszystkiego co najlepsze w Nowym Roku!

  • Reply another piotr 23 December 2016 at 01:47

    Twister — it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a foot.

  • Reply Nancy Southers 3 January 2017 at 02:26

    We truly enjoyed our first Polish Christmas!! Everyone was very inviting and friendly. The food was delicious and the hosts really made a wonderful effort to make us feel comfortable. We left feeling like we were part of the family which was so nice and fun!! Leah, you and Piotrek were great to help us out by translating…thank you! Sorry we didn’t get to play Twister. Would have loved to see Jacek, Ken and maybe Babcia Asia twisted together 🙂

  • Reply Jagoda 23 January 2017 at 02:46

    My family is tri-national – Polish (Polish-Australian), Swedish and Italian. Now, my part of the family speaks English or are native bilinguals, so we have no problem with the Swedish side (they all speak it) and some of the Italian side, but some of our Polish family members don’t speak English or Swedish or Italian, and a few of the Italian family members don’t speak any other language 😉 Despite the fact that my godfather does not speak English, somehow, he and my Swedish uncle could talk for hours on end. How? Vodka! 😛 A tip for next time? 😉
    Google translate on the phone is pretty good. My dad took a few of the non-English speaking Italian family on a tour around Poznań. They were supposed to be gone about 2 hours. They left in the morning and returned late in the evening 😀 They didn’t drink any vodka.
    When it comes to board games during Christmas, Tombola is one of our traditions since our family grew Italian 🙂 Great game where you don’t need to know the language, and you can learn numbers in other members’ languages. My kids are fluent in counting in Italian 😉 as are we!

  • Reply Leah Morawiec 23 January 2017 at 09:15

    Hi Jagoda – wow so you have it even harder with three or actually four languages! Google translate can be very useful although I often find the translations to be quite poor but it’s better than nothing. You must have a fun Christmas!!

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