Polish Christmas traditions are some of the most enchanting composites of Polish culture and heritage. Leaving a chair empty at the Christmas table may be one of the most popular customs, but few people know its interesting history.
Nowadays, the tradition obliges Christmas dinner hosts to prepare an extra chair and plate at the table should there be an unexpected visitor. If someone actually turns up at the door, hosts should feed this guest and give them shelter.
This strictly and commonly observed custom is very compatible with traditional Polish hospitality, a trait Poles have always been very proud of. Indeed, Poles strongly believe in an old saying, which has it that ‘a guest at home is God at home’.
However, the roots of the tradition of an empty chair are much more complicated and Poles are not unanimous in deciding where it originates from. Let us present to you the three most probable hypotheses.
1. Pagan rite
Many Polish traditions derive from pagan rites because the lands that became Poland, before their baptism and conversion to Catholicism in 966, had their own system of Slavic pagan beliefs. One of these rituals was called Obiat. It was a huge feast, celebrated in memory of ancestors and recently-deceased tribe members. A participant would have to sweep their empty chair before sitting at the table to ‘excuse’ the soul that might be seated on it. After everyone had finished eating, the table was supposed to be left as is for a few hours so that the dead could take their turn in the banquet.
Scholars believe that after Poland’s baptism, this tradition became adopted into the new reality. In its early Christian form, the empty seat was being left to commemorate those who had passed away earlier in the year.
This theory seems fairly likely, since a number of pre-baptism traditions were transformed into Christian customs, and remain popular despite the 1050 years that have passed since Poland parted ways with pagan culture. One of the most notable is that children’s favourite Śmigus Dyngus, a national holiday they spend throwing water at people.
2. The Holy Bible
A few days before the birth of Jesus Christ, an obligatory census was announced for all the inhabitants of Syria and Judea. It meant The Holy Family-to-be had to immediately travel to Nazareth in Judea, despite the Virgin Mary being heavily pregnant. As you probably know, she went into labour mid-way whilst they were still in Bethlehem, forcing them to desperately look for shelter. After being turned away from the inn, they eventually found a place to stay in a stable, the humble spot where Jesus was born.
The story of their wandering and looking for shelter is said to be another possible source of the empty chair tradition. According to supporters of this theory, it is to remind us that we should all be ready to accept an unexpected guest and never turn away somebody in need. Given how perfectly it interweaves with the previously-mentioned saying, ‘a guest at home is God at home’, we can assume this guess a very accurate one.
3. The January Uprising
In the mid-19th century, Poland didn’t exist on Europe’s political map. It had been partitioned by its three neighbours (Russia, Prussia and Austria) and was de facto occupied. Each of the occupiers introduced a more or less severe policy for eradicating Polish culture and language on these partitioned lands, with Russia and Prussia being leaders in this field. Poles have always been the type of people that can’t stand foreign occupation and every few decades of the partitions they took part in massive uprisings. One of the biggest was the January Uprising in 1863.
It was triggered by the forced enlistment of Poles into the Russian Army. Even though it started very spontaneously in Warsaw, the uprising spilled over into all the other partitioned Polish lands. It soon turned into several months of guerrilla war against overwhelming occupant forces and, tragically, led to the massive deportation of captured insurgents to Siberia.
During this period, the empty chair tradition gained a new dimension. From the year of the uprising onwards, the empty place was not only left for ancestors or an unexpected guest but, first and foremost, in memory of those who had been deported east, in order to strengthen the hope of their fortunate comeback.
Which of these hypotheses seems to be the most accurate? The answer is: all of them. Apparently, this tradition’s meaning has evolved according to the circumstances. Even though its observance didn’t change a bit, it always remained an important part of celebrating Christmas in Poland.
What’s most significant about it – and will certainly always continue to be – is that you don’t have to know anything about the tradition’s background to see that it is strong proof of Poles’ hospitality. They find treating every guest like an honorary guest their personal duty, and visiting Poland even once in one’s lifetime leaves no doubt about it.